Debussy String Quartet in Gm, op. 10

performed by the Emerson String Quartet, or below by the Kodaly Quartet

Any sounds in any combination and in any succession are henceforth free to be used in a musical continuity…

-Claude Debussy

 Our first piece in the Darmstadt Series isn’t. Clearly Claude Debussy came around (and went) long before what is now referred to as the Darmstadt School ever got its name. His death almost coincides with the births of a few of the composers referred to in the Darmstadt group. The reason I’m including him here is partly for the nature of the work at hand but mostly because he made a very strong impression on at least two of the people we will be spending more time talking about: Olivier Messiaen and Pierre Boulez.

While neither of them studied with Debussy (Messiaen studied with Paul Dukas, a fellow student and close friend of Debussy), Messiaen was apparently hugely influenced by seeing the score of Pelléas et Mélisande, after already showing in an interest in Impressionist music.

As for Boulez, Debussy is one of the only composers who Boulez doesn’t lambast or at least criticize here or there for some compositional fault or faux pas. In all the books and interviews I read with/about Boulez (earlier this year, when the idea for this series struck me), there were only a very small handful of composers exempt from his criticisms: Beethoven, Chopin, Wagner, Mahler, Debussy… that’s about it. He spoke slightly less favorably of Schubert and Schumann, and had plenty to say about other apparently less talented composers. Wikipedia quotes Boulez as saying “that Debussy freed chamber music from “rigid structure, frozen rhetoric and rigid aesthetics.””

So Debussy is our starting point for the Darmstadt series, a proto-atonalist of sorts.

The piece was written in 1893 and premiered the same year, “to mixed reactions,” says Wikipedia. It’s not a terribly long work, at about 24 minutes, in four movements:

  1. Animé et très décidé
  2. Assez vif et bien rythmé
  3. Andantino, doucement expressif
  4. Très modéré – En animant peu à peu – Très mouvementé et avec passion

This is kind of a warm up, you might say, to where we’ll be going later. There’s nothing in here that should be off-putting in any way, at least to a modern ear. One could think of Debussy’s approach as a reaction to a few systems. For one, as Mitsuko Uchida states at this point in a wonderful interview, Debussy ‘dropped the diatonic system, the tonal hierarchy, just like that’ (I paraphrase; go watch her say it), but in a way different from Schoenberg, she says. Obviously Debussy preceded Schoenberg, and the former just walked away from it, left it behind and started doing new things, whereas Schoenberg ‘actively fought against it’, she says, ‘rattled at it’ and devised a system of composition to actively avoid (or at least be able to avoid) any semblance of traditional harmonic structure.

So what you hear in this quartet is soft, sensual, supple, a Frenchman’s response to the strictness of German structure. There’s no denying that Wagner was a huge influence on the late Romantic tonality and that Debussy absorbed that influence as well, but Dick Wagner only wrote one symphony, and it is the opposite of highly regarded. The form of this quartet then, is more cyclical, with an obvious four-movement structure, but lots of interconnectedness throughout and across the movement boundaries that somehow adds to the flowing, ethereal feel of the work.

The first movement is a good example of this, and pay attention here. Triplets come to the fore in different ways, first as an important part of the opening figure, as does a syncopated rhythm, with quarter notes on the offbeats, making for a slithery kind of sensual sound. After twelve bars of this, there is a passage where first violin takes up a melodic line over chromatic sixteenth note runs in the rest of the quartet, soon flipped to give cello the melody. Very quickly then, in about the first minute-and-a-half (arguably even less), we have not only a pretty solid mood for the piece, but also been presented with content that will appear as a fixture of every movement. Recognizing this and being able to recall the first movement is an essential part of seeing the big picture in this quartet, as I shall discuss below.

Those sixteenth notes become triplets, and the movement continues. While the structure is described as cyclical, there is a moment late in the movement where the opening reappears, in what might be called a recapitulation. There’s no exposition repeat or any of that, but instead of step one (A theme), step 2 (B theme), step 3 (development), etc., one gets the feel more of an unbroken arc, an organic growth that returns back around to where it begun. Cyclical.

We see immediately the unifying nature of the music across movements when the second movement begins. It’s in a brisk 6/8. First violin and cello pluck out big chords (quadruple stops in cello!) (are they still ‘stops’ if they’re pizzicato?) and viola enters in the third bar with what is essentially a triple-meter incarnation of the last movement’s opening theme. It’s quite repetitive with the viola, but that subject eventually passes to first violin and cello, where we enter what feels like the trio of this scherzo movement. It’s a slightly cooler, more mellow version of what already came, a little more laid back, at least at first. There are some breathtaking swells that remind me not a little of La Merand 2-let (“doublet”?) eighth notes add to the complexity of the rhythms (is that called hemiola?). Fascinatingly, when our pizzicato returns, it’s in a passage marked at 15/8, with dotted barlines to divide each bar into smaller units of 9/8 and 6/8. Pretty cool.

The third movement slows things down significantly. It’s marked Andantino, and despite the intense interest in what’s been presented before, I get the slightest impression of someone nervously pacing around their Parisian flat, retracing their steps in different ways, maybe looking for something, a book or a magazine, the smell of the flowers on the table adding to the peacefulness of the room, if there weren’t a slight buzz of tension in the air. I meant to say that earlier, that the moving away from traditional structure doesn’t negatively affect the work or its effectiveness. It’s just different. I was actually just this morning listening to Tchaikovsky’s fourth and pondering on the not-so-sonata form cyclical approach in his work.

At un peu plus vite (a little bit faster), we move from a D flat major key signature (five flats) to E major (four sharps) and a very pentatonic, indigenous sounding passage, like we’ve suddenly been thrown into an enchanted forest, through which the viola leads us, accompanied by the occasional chorus from the other strings. It’s beyond magical, and builds to more agitated, passionate heights, the basis of our cyclical theme form the first movement still making appearances. What a blissful movement that is, the pinnacle of delicate beauty in this work.

Then the finale. It opens, not with a bang, but a chromatic, sensual slither. It’s not some firecracking runaway presto, at least not yet. We have an eight bar phrase and then six more bars before a 12/8 passage that seems to mark the first section after the introduction, which reminds, suggests what came before, as if to put in context what follows. What we’re introduced to is a melodic figure that has a strange kind of stickiness, drills into your brain and makes its presence, repeats over and over again, almost mesmerizing. The dotted quarter-eighth figure makes an appearance again, and maybe it’s not actually supposed to remind me of other content from the opening, but it does here.

The finale, by the way, is where it’s at. Reading the above is the overall impression of what a first-time listen might give you, but it’s not until the finale that it all comes together, where all the the tricks up the Debussy sleeve come out, where everything ties in and we see the true form of this cyclical nature that Debussy has been spinning all along. The first two movements might seem slightly repetitive, orbiting around the same little area, but let it unravel (or ravel more?) and we see what the composer apparently had in mind all along. The finale is epic, big, sprawling, powerful but also intimate and supple, nothing short of breathtaking.

The Big Picture

In retrospect, the opening is like driving down a road  you’ve never been on, knowing that there is a destination and that you’ll know it when you see it, but you don’t see it yet. Bits and pieces of the scenery emerge through the trees, a glimpse of mountains, a waterfall, but everything is still shadowed and partially obscured until you reach a clearing, where you can see not only where you’ve been, but where you finally are, at the top of a mountain, overlooking a beautiful, expansive landscape. That’s the Debussy quartet.

It has an unmistakably modern tinge to it, with Debussy’s use of unique harmonies and rhythms, the ever present two-against-three, for one. But it’s child’s play compared to what we’ll be addressing this month, and it’s intimidating to try to speak intelligently about the pieces we’ll be discussing, but my own approach, I’ve decided (allow me some hedging) will not be to write analytical theses, as I’ve said before, but to try to make the works approachable or at least something bordering on intelligible for larger, new audiences, to build a case for their significance and importance, even if I myself am not terribly in love with them… So stay tuned for that.



One thought on “Debussy String Quartet in Gm, op. 10

  1. Interesting. I didn’t know there was a Darmstadt School, but then again my studies in Neue Musik have started only recently. 😉

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