Critical Analysis: Finding the Links (2022)

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Critical Analysis: Finding the Links (1)

Impressionist painting of sails

Voiles, meaning either "veils" or "sails" in French, is an example of an Impressionist piece of music (even though Debussy himself refused the title of an "Impressionist"). The piece elicits feelings of serenity within an eerie tranquility. With glissandos emulating the sound of a harp, and by incorporating numerous dissonant chords that do not resolve to any traditional patterns of chord progressions or cadences, Debussy is able to keep the audience on edge as they try to figure out the tonal center of the piece.

Score below was provided by: IMSLP/Petrucci Music Library: Free Public Domain Sheet Music

Voiles - Claude Debussy (Full Score)

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A painting of a pagoda

Similar to Voiles, this piece is also an example of Impressionist music. Characterized as having a distinct "Asian sound", Pagodesis arguably the most prominent example of Asian influence on Debussy's later compositions.

"This piece has three main sections that tends to repeat itself in an interesting structure. The first section, A, stretches from measures 1~32. B, the second section is introduced in measures 33-40 and finally, the third section, C, is played in measures 41-45. Then, the piece repeats these sections in a ABCBA structure followed by transition material and a coda -- creating a macro-structure similar to that of an actual pagoda..." (Vanderburg, Kyle).

The sheet music attached below was provided by:IMSLP/Petrucci Music Library: Free Public Domain Sheet Music

Pagodes - Claude Debussy (Full Score)

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Khong Minh Toa Lau

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The Dan Tranh

The Khong Minh toa lau, meaning "Music for the Barbarian Invaders",is a traditional Vietnamese piece composed specifically for the Dan Tranh. It features a solo performance by the Dan Tranh, highlighting the musical characteristics of the instrument and also some features of Vietnamese traditional music.

Overall, thispiece begins with a calm, longer melody, but proceeds to a more upbeat, bouncy rhythm and tone. Ita placid mood by using both the characteristics of the instrument and the piece itself. More detailed characteristics will be discussed in the analysis below.
(Full score attached):

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Critical Analysis: Finding the Links (7)

The lines highlighted in blue are the corresponding melodies that are developed throughout the piece. The green highlights correspond to similar melodies in the different sections. The orange highlights are marking the glissandos throughout the piece.

These highlights can be used to aid you during the analysis section below.

- Detailed Analysis -
Finding the Musical Links

Melodic Development

Different music cultures have distinct ways of developing their melodic ideas in music. For example, some Asian cultures use improvisation as their main method of developing motifs and melodic ideas as each soloist elaborates on their own ideas. The Western music culture tends to have structured methods and guidelines for developing its melodies, depending on the genre and era (Roger, Kamien). However, in both Debussy's piano music and the Vietnamese traditional piece, similar techniques are used in the process of motivic development throughout the pieces.

Perhaps the most prominent linking characteristic between the music cultures is their use of the pentatonic scale. Though this is mainly dealing with Pagodesand theKhong Minh toa lau, Voiles has a small middle section where the piece is in pentatonic scale as well (the rest of the piece is in the C whole-tone scale:C, D, E, F#, G#, Bb, C). (See Figure 1)

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Figure 1: Pentatonic Scale in Debussy's Voiles

As discussed before, the other two pieces are in the pentatonic scale as well. As the Dan Tranh is tuned to the pentatonic scale itself, the Khong Minh toa lauis naturally in a pentatonic scale, with many descending and ascending glissandos within this scale. Pagodesis extensively in the B major pentatonic scale (C#, D#, F#, G#, A#), again adding to the distinctly Asian qualities of this piece, as the pentatonic scale was most typical for Asian music cultures. This serves probably as one of the most prominent signs that Debussy may have been influenced by Asian music, as he is using a distinctly "Asian" scale as the tonal center of his composition.

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Figure J: Fragmentation in Khong Minh toa lau

Between the 2nd and 3rd sections in the Khong Minh toa lau, we see two very similar melodic lines. The melodic line in the third section is actually a fragmentation of the melody from the second section (See Figure J). The melody from the second section had been taken and shortened to create the melody in the third section, while preserving the melodic contour. The long note has been moved from the first beat to the second beat (and thus the accent and microtonal inflection, accordingly). Then, the sixteenth note progressions have been taken out to create the simple, third section melody. In addition, the glissandos at the end of each phrase have been taken out as well. However, though it may seem that the melody for the third section will sound rather boring and bland, the faster tempo marking allows it to develop in its own way.

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Figure K: Fragmentation in Debussy's Pagodes

Again, we see evidence of fragmentation in Debussy's piano music as well. In Pagodes, Debussy takes the melodic line that was originally played in octaves with a complex rhythm in the last two beats of the measure, and turns it into a simplified single-line melody with 4eighth-notes instead of the original tied rhythm followed by a triplet (Figure K).

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Figure K: Layering of Melodies in Khong Minh toa lau

Another characteristic that these two music cultures share is the way they layer their melodies. In the Khong Minh toa lau, the melody already starts off in octaves. Because the dan tranh limits the performer to only one hand to pluck the strings, there is only so many layers that a performer could create. Therefore, the piece uses a staggering of the melody instead, where the top melody (the higher octave) is displaced by a sixteenth-rest, creating two melodic lines playing at different intervals (See Figure K). This continues for the majority of the second section. Also, the melody itself is made more complex with dotted eighth notes and rapid 32nd notes afterwards. This creates the feeling of the melody having a thicker texture itself, and adds to the effect of having layered the two lines.

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Figure L: Layering of Melodies in Debussy's Voiles

In Voiles, Debussy uses a slightly different approach to layering his melodies. The excerpt in Figure L is the main melody of Voilesas it opens the piece and constantly reappears throughout the piece as a repetitive motif.As seen in Figure L, while maintaining the same right hand melody, Debussy adds not just one, but two melodic lines under this right hand part. The lowest line is the base drone note of Bb, with the middle line also played by the left hand in octaves. As the piece progresses, this creates a thicker texture as three melodic lines are layered on top of each other to create a complex progression of multiple motifs playing simultaneously.

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Figure M: Layering of Melodies in Debussy's Pagodes

Finally, in Pagodes, Debussy similarly develops the main melody in his piece. In Figure M, the melodic line is - just in Voiles- the first subject that opens the piece and is immediately repeated three times, and many more times throughout the piece.Debussy keeps the bass and top line and decides to change the middle voice from merely playing chordal accompaniments to having an actual melodic line of eighth notes. Debussy is adding variation to the main melody as the piece progresses. This changes the feeling of the melody from having two layers to three complete layers, creating a thicker texture and creating a similar effect as in Voiles.

Again, another compositional device that has been used in all three pieces to develop the melody is the use of ostinato.
An ostinato is a melodic phrase or motif that is repeated in succession usually within the same pitch (Kamien, 611).
In all three pieces, ostinato have been used as a key compositional device in introducing the melodic themes of the pieces and assisting in developing them throughout. In fact, they are persistent throughout all three songs from the very beginning to the end, showing the significance of this device in both music cultures.

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Figure A (left) and Figure B (right): Evidence of ostinato in Debussy's Pagodes

Figure A is from the first two measures of the piece, as Debussy repeats the first measure to create this short introduction. Figure B is from the second measure of the 4th line on the 6th page and shows Debussy's use of ostinato in the right hand melody. The descending quintuplet is played twice before being followed by an ascending passage consisting of a quintuplet and four 32nd-notes. This phrase is directly repeated right after, and this pattern continues for another measure before developing into new lines which are then repeated, again showing the use of ostinato in this piece.

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Figure C (left) and Figure D (right): Evidence of ostinato in Debussy's Voiles

Similar to Pagodes, Debussy introduces ostinato right from the beginning of this piece. Figure C (first three measures of the piece) shows the melody in the first measure that is repeated in the third measure (descending whole-tone passage with an interval of an augmented fourth or a diminished fifth, also known as the tri-tone, which has a dissonant quality to it, and thus establishing the eerie atmosphere from the beginning). Figure D is an extract from the last page of the score (measures 58-60). Just like Figure C, Debussy uses the melody in the right hand and repeats it two measures later (which is actually the same motif he introduced in measure 1).

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Figure E (left) and Figure F (right): Evidence of ostinato in Khong Minh toa lau

In Figure E (measures 7-8), we can see again that ostinato is being used to introduce a new melodic idea as this is the introduction of the second section of the piece. Similarly in Figure F, there is a series of two ostinati in succession to introduce the beginning of a new section. In these examples of ostinato, an interesting observation is that all the melodic ideas have been kept very short and repeated to develop them, rather than modifying them. Both Debussy's piano music and the Vietnamese piece do not use ostinato for rather long motifs or melodic ideas, but only short ones that could easily be repeated within a measure.

Ambiguity in Meter (Lack of Pulse)

Another clear musical link between the two musical cultures is their ambiguity in meter. This means that their meter is unclear and can create the feeling of lacking a pulse. When listening to the recordings, listeners can often find themselves having trouble trying to tap their feet along to the song.

In the Khong Minh toa lau, the characteristic of ambiguous meter is created by the varying lengths of each measure, and the lack of a time signature. In this piece, the measures aren't necessarily divided by the number of beats but by different phrases of melodies.

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Figure N: Ambiguous meter in the Khong Minh toa lau

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The first six measures of the Khong Minh toa lau have varying measure-lengths in terms of how many beats are in each measure (See Figure N). This makes it hard for listeners to get a good grasp of the time signature (because there is none) and the meter. The only reference they have is the length of each melodic phrase (in this excerpt, it is 10 beats per phrase). But even this varies at times, as can be seen in measures 5-6 of Figure N -- the phrase length changed to 13 beats instead of 10. This is also the case for the second section and the rest of the piece (See below: Figure O).

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Figure O: Ambiguous meter in the Khong Minh toa lau

Also, the staggered rhythm in the second section of the piece (See Figure O) makes it difficult for listeners to find the true pulse of the piece.

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Figure P: Ambiguous meter in Debussy's Pagodes

Similar to the Khong Minh toa lau, Debussy placed all the rhythmic ideas eighth-rests displaced from beat 1 of every measure. This creates an ambiguity in the beats of each phrase and measure, creating the feeling of ambiguous meter. In addition, as you can see from Figure P, this piece has very flexible interpretations on rhythm. This is described as having a tempo rubato (typical to the Romantic Era), meaning the performer can slow down (ritardando) or speed up (accelerando) in certain areas they feel they want to emphasize. This is another contributing factor as to why it is hard to deduce a definite pulse while listening to this piece.

In the case of Voiles,Debussy uses rather extreme note durations and values such as 32nd notes, double-dotted eighth notes, and rapid glissandos under the 2/4 time signature to create the feeling of ambiguity (See Figure C). These are rather difficult to follow and does not help establish a solid pulse. Also, the tied notes that start the beginning of certain melodic phrases make it difficult to deduce when the start of a new phrase is, and what beat number that phrase entered on. Debussy also uses the augmentation and diminution of note values to disguise the meter.

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Figure Q: Ambiguous meter in Debussy's Voiles

In addition Debussy introduces his melodies an eighth rest into every measure (staggered entrance discussed inPagodes) (See Figure Q). In addition, the layering of melodies discussed before can play a role in "disguising" the meter or pulse of this piece. With multiple melodies overlapping each other and entering and ending at different times, it is difficult to decipher the beginning and ends of different phrases. The phrases do not necessarily start in logical places either, and are often carried on to the middle of the next measure and such, further contributing to this effect. Finally, in contrast to the rapid note values of this piece, the rests are significantly long and take up a large portion of the piece, and these rests provide very little clues as to what the meter exactly is.

Even in light of all these musical links between Debussy's piano music and Vietnamese traditional music for the dan tranh, it is impossible to know for certain whether Debussy had been influenced by the Vietnamese music. It may have been another Asian music culture similar to that of Vietnamese music, or even pure coincidence that these links happen to exist. However, it is indisputable that these two completely distinct musical cultures with radically different backgrounds show significant musical links in their pieces that seem completely irrelevant to each other at first.

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