Harmonic Ingenuity of Debussy:– Opening Ambiguities (Part 1)

Now that we’ve spent some time contemplating the outlying cultural and musical observations which frame the composition, we’ll dig into the opening bars.  In this post, let’s to look at the first two bars of the piece.  Musically they are surprisingly simple, but they hold an underlying complexity which foreshadows and establishes a great many themes, events and ambiguities throughout the piece.  Here you can see the two bars in question and a third bar which leads into the following passage:

Opening Bars

The piece begins with a key signature of E major/C# minor, and the opening two bar statement consists of four diatonically descending arpeggiated triads in first inversion. The first arpeggio of each bar ascends with an additional diatonic passing tone falling on the sixth triplet, smoothly connecting to the top note of the descending arpeggio.  The melodic fluidity and freedom of rhythmic expression in these bars goes some way to hiding the underlying harmonic simplicity.  When considered abstractly from musicality, the harmonic structures simply descend inside the key signature in a parallel manner.  It is noteworthy that this manner of ‘parallelism’ is a common compositional trait of impressionist musical works.

The following tables examine what possible tonal functionalities could be implied enharmonically by these four chord changes as both first inversion or root position structures, in both presently suggested keys:

First inversion triads

First inversion triads

Extended root position chords

Extended root position chords

The most obvious initial functional assumptions (abstract from musicality) are a descending line from IV to I in E, or from i to v in C#m.  C#m seems slightly more unlikely due to the lack of a dominant V chord, although in impressionistic vocabulary it is not necessary to assume a dominant V will always be present.

We’ll end this article on these basic functional observations.  Our next step will be to to discuss how the musical and perceptive traits of the passage can change, define or blur the  basic ‘theoretical’ functionality in a way which Debussy uses very effectively throughout this piece.

Hopefully you are enjoying this series so far. Please use the comments section to post any requests for direction in the series or queries you have on the content of the articles.

Until next time!