Harmonic Ingenuity of Debussy:– Initial-Observations

To truly and correctly consider the content of a musical work, the context and form must be observed and understood. Before we dig into the ‘meat’ of the piece (all those juicy chords..) I will take some time to make any relevant initial observations.

Firstly, what is an Arabesque?

According to according to the Yale university library’s glossary of musical forms, it is “a short piece of music featuring various melodic, contrapuntal, or harmonic decorations”. While correct, this is probably true of most pieces of music!

‘Oxford Dictionaries’ defines the term abstractly from musical form as “an ornamental design consisting of intertwined flowing lines, originally found in ancient Islamic art”. It goes on to specifically define a musical Arabesque as “a passage or composition with fanciful ornamentation of the melody”. This is a little more clear but no more specific.

The Baker’s Student Encyclopedia of Music (L. D. Kuhn, 1999) states that origins of the word ‘Arabesque’ in classical music come from western ideas of Arabic music and architectural aesthetic, which were considered to be highly ornamental in their nature. It is stated however that the musical content of the ‘arabesque’ form is not (necessarily) closely related in any cultural or stylistic manner to Arabic music.



Basically.. It’s a fancy, frilly, and generally very pretty sounding short form piece.



It is notable to consider that the composition of these arabesques occurred within the same timespan as Debussy’s first exposure to Southeast Asian music; in 1889 he attended the ‘Exposition Universelle’ in Paris and heard the traditional Javanese Gamelan music of Indonesia. Whilst there is no obvious direct citation of this music in his two arabesques, it is of notable significance that it was from this period of his life forth in which the western equally tempered pentatonic scale, which bears much similarity to the Indonesian traditional ‘Sléndro’ traditional scale (a prolific component of Gamalan music) began to appear in his compositional works.

Finally, with its distinct ‘ABA’ structure the piece can be considered to be ternary form. The sections are quite apparent as the music is divided into sections on the score by double bar lines, and punctuated musically by changes in key signature and tempo. As we progress through the series I will make relevant observations on where we are in the structure, and why that is important.

Ok..  That’s the talking out of the way, next time let’s look at some chords!

Until next time,


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