Music Educators Association of New Jersey

Serving teachers and students since 1927

January 2021



Debussy's Many Worlds of Sound
by Magdalena Stern-Baczewska
January 21, 2021


Pianist and harpsichordist Magdalena Baczewska brought her admiration and knowledge of Debussy to the MEA via Zoom. At Columbia University, Dr. Baczewska teaches “The Masterpieces of Western Music,” or “Music Humanities,” concerning the role of the composer in society. In her course, Magdalena introduces Debussy as the first Modernist and follows him with Stravinsky and Schoenberg. For more about this accomplished artist, go to here.

In her MEA lecture, Magdalena explored the influences, attitudes and preferences that fueled Debussy’s inventiveness. She cited Claude Monet 's 1874 work, "Impressions: Sunrise," as the earliest painting of the Impressionist movement. Impressionism is expressed in music through orchestration, harmonic progressions and textures. In piano music it is expressed through color or "timbre." Debussy used new chord combinations, extended harmonies, modes and exotic scales, parallel motions, extra-musicality and evocative titles. He dreamt of a piano with no hammers. Debussy said, "I like painting almost as much as music” but he was not fond of his music being called Impressionistic.

Debussy, a well-read man, was familiar with the poetry of the "Symbolists," a group of late nineteenth-century French writers including Arthur Rimbaud and Stéphane Mallarmé. Rimbaud declared that Symbolists believed the purpose of art was not to represent reality, but to access greater truths by the "systematic derangement of the senses." Referring to his own tone poem Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune, (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun), Debussy wrote: "The music of this prelude is a very free musical expression of Mallarmé's beautiful poem" portraying the atmosphere of that afternoon of the faun's dream scenes. Magdalena played a little of the opening chromatic melody which also uses the forbidden tritone ("the devil" augmented 4th), here left unresolved. Debussy played with tonality, inserted a dramatic silence and then repeated exactly the same musical sequences. Debussy felt no pressure to conform to musical conventions, she opined.

In describing "Modernism," Magdalena mentioned the 24 Preludes of 1910 and 1913 where Debussy placed a descriptive title at the end of each piece. He wanted the audience to listen intuitively, rather than be influenced by a title. He used suggestive expression marks such as "emerging from the fog little by little" in "La cathédrale engloutie" (The Engulfed Cathedral). Not satisfied with major and minor modes, which he deemed "playthings for children,“ Debussy enriched his musical language with the pentatonic mode (as in "Voiles" and "La cathédrale engloutie") and the whole tone scale (“Voiles"). “Voiles” lacks a tonal center. He boldly composed parallel progressions of hanging, incomplete chords. Magdalena next played parts of "La fille aux cheveux de lin," (The Girl with the Flaxen Hair), stressing that Debussy aimed for elasticity of time with ritardandos and accelerandos, as though he wanted the meter or beat to be unclear. Duple and triple meters are no longer important. Next Magdalena played parts of Debussy's "Des pas sur la neige," (Footprints in the Snow), stressing that the cells of musical material are so small and changes so subtle that composer Steve Reich would have "gladly signed his name under this piece." Magdalena suggested that one could call this prelude the beginning of Minimal music.

Next, Magdalena performed parts of Debussy's "La cathédrale engloutie," referring to his regard for traditional French vocal music. Magdalena played short tapes of the following examples: a two-part men's chorus singing a ninth-century hymn using parallel organum (open 5ths); "Sakura," a traditional Japanese song played on strings using pentatonic mode; bells tolling from Amiens Cathedral (sounds heard in several pieces in the "Images"); and Guillaume Du Fay's composition of a male chorus following Renaissance tradition by singing "Faux bourdon" (parallel 6/3 chords.) Magdalena quoted a conversation between Debussy and Ernest Guiraud, his teacher at the Paris Conservatory. Guiraud said: “I am not saying that what you do isn't beautiful, but it's theoretically absurd.” Debussy, the innovator, replied: “There is no theory. You have merely to listen. Pleasure is the law.”

Magdalena then discussed Debussy's 1903 cycle Estampes (Sketches) and influences that inspired them. Debussy, a fan of Japanese prints and visual arts, treated his own scores as works of visual arts. When he heard a Javanese gamelan orchestra at the 1889 Universal Exposition in Paris, Debussy was captivated. Magdalena played a recording of gamelan music, remarking that it evolves using larger instruments like gongs and the variety of sounds is "mind boggling." In "Pagodes" (Pagodas), the first piece (or movement) in Estampes, we hear gong-like chords alluding to instruments of the gamelan orchestra, then pentatonic scales, all reflecting religious services taking place in an Asian, multi- layered pagoda. Debussy's instruction, “delicately and almost without nuance” means, “not the way you play Brahms,” Magdalena commented.

In the second movement, “La soiree dans Grenade,” (An Evening in Granada), Debussy moves to Islamic architecture, as in the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. He uses an Arabic scale, (a double harmonic scale of two tetrachords each with an augmented second), in the dotted rhythm of a habanera, then breaks into the strumming of a guitar a la flamenco, and returns to the habanera. There were some whole tone passages. His instruction at the top is “Nonchalantly graceful.” In the third movement, “Jardins sous la pluie,” (Gardens in the Rain), one can hear torrential rain and droplets falling off leaves. It is a highly chromatic piece which quotes two well-known French songs, one a lullaby, and uses the Lydian mode (raised fourth scale degree). Magdalena suggested that this piece may be subtly continuing the harpsichord tradition of J.S. Bach and there may be some Chopin allusions. She ended her performance of the piece suddenly, as she said, “ to shock the listener.”

As an introduction to Debussy's Images, Book I (1901-05), Magdalena showed us a slide of an article entitled “The Velvet Revolution of Claude Debussy” written in 2018 by Alex Ross in The New Yorker magazine. Alex deconstructed the first movement, “Reflets dans l'eau,” (Reflections in the Water), and Magdalena mentioned Impressionism's picture painting; Modernism's chords drawn from beyond the opening key of D-Flat major, for instance, a long descending chord made up of 4ths; atonality predating Schoenberg's; a series of 7ths including the minor-major 7th popular with jazz musicians such as Bill Evans. Magdalena mentioned Debussy's use of the pentatonic scale; bells of parallel 6/4 chords alluding to the Bourdon; and a huge Romantic wave-of-water climax with swelling E-flat arpeggios. Alex called Debussy's musical language “a bending of the space-time continuum” and acknowledges that Debussy used water images in the orchestral “La Mer” as did Ravel in his “Jeux d'eau,” paving the way for Spectral music.

In the second movement, “Hommage a Rameau,” (Tribute to Rameau), Debussy bows to Rameau, a compatriot from the Baroque Era, by writing a sarabande, a dance traditionally reserved for the best dancer in the court. Magdalena played the beginning of a tape of a Charles Dieupart (b. 1667) sarabande that is so slow that the meter is not easily discernable. Debussy wrote Gregorian chant and linear counterpoint using parallel 9th chords in the rhythm of a sarabande, and near the end of the piece he began a series of overtones.

Magdalena calls “Mouvement,” (Movement), the third movement of the Images Book I, a 1905 “Ode to Paris.” She cited Monet's paintings of the Gare St. Lazare, the train station complete with steam engines, and early photographs of a city full of motor cars. The piece begins “perpetuum mobile” in parallel organum with the left hand pinky playing the “Dies Irae.” Then Debussy uses the first inversion of the 7th chord for “Faux Bourdon” technique; next, switches to the whole tone scale and without a ritenuto ends the piece suddenly, like the “click of a switch in the Age of Industry.”

“Images Book II” (1907) begins with “Cloches a travers les feuilles,” (Bells through the Leaves), in which Debussy creates a polyphony of bells of different sizes and shapes, all in the whole tone scale. Debussy's instructions are: “Like an undulating fog.” Magdalena said, “Debussy is changing meters but is asking for no accents; imagine the piano has no hammers.”

In movement two, “Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut,” (And the Moon descends on the Temple that Was), tonality is a thing of the past. We have no idea that it is written in 4/4 meter. Debussy is using the full keyboard of the piano and the piece seems improvisatory. It has that stop-and-go feel like “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair.”

“Poissons d'or” (Goldfish), the third movement, may have been inspired by nature or by a Chinese lacquer bowl owned by Debussy. The piece depicts the tale of a goldfish or Japanese carp and starts with the left hand in minor and the right hand in major. Debussy wanted it to be unpredictable as he mixed modes and gave accents to the pinky, perhaps referring to the motion of the fish tail. There are atonal runs throughout.

During the post-lecture question and answer period, one of the listeners said that she enjoyed hearing Magdalena occasionally sing along with her playing, her beautiful voice shaping legato melodies in sync with her keyboard “singing.” Magdalena mentioned that she doesn't agree with unlimited use of pedal and that Debussy himself in his own recordings played with clarity. “Pedal with one's ear, not with one's foot.” One teacher mentioned that to this day the sostenuto pedal does not appear on modern pianos, especially in Europe. Magdalena added that Rubenstein pressed the left pedal throughout his performances. Another teacher asked for advice on ways to decrease the volume from pp to ppp. Magdalena said, “use different voicings on the same chord; create the mood.”

Magdalena treated us to a wealth of beautiful sounds and images. We were all entranced by the artist’s mastery of dynamics and pedaling on her magnificent 85- key, 19th century Steinway piano. President Yudit Terry commented, “you have brought us into a different world and enriched our day so much.”


Beverly Shea, writer and layout designer