November 2016 Debussy for the Advancing Musician

          Imagine an exotic place, something very different from your typical environment or homeland, that you have visited either in real life, through a film or book, in art, or other life experience, that intrigues you; lures you. What defines this place for you? Why does it enchant you? What about it most interests you? If it were possible, would you live or work there? How long would you stay? Did the experience of this place permanently change you, your lifestyle, or your hopes for the future?

Claude Debussy  

            Claude Debussy lived and worked in the fin de siècle, the turn of the century, in France during the late 1800’s. The fine arts and passion for them flourished at this time. Paris, the trendy modern hub of France, was enamored with the exoticism of all things Japanese, especially Japanese prints. Japanese prints were simple yet sublime, giving the onlooker a simple and incomplete impression of the idea behind the scene; as though walking through a particular moment of someone’s life and experiencing it without context or conclusion. They carried a quality that induced the onlooker to complete the picture in their own imagination. This particular aesthetic fascinated Debussy whose own words described it,

       “If you must find precedents, compare me to the Japanese masters: their rareness of taste                       always intrigued me, and I approve of their aesthetic sense, their powers of suggestion which                 evoke presence by a shadow, the complete  picture by a fragment” (Roberts, 1996, p. 45).

          As common as e-devices are today, Japanese prints were to the Parisians at the turn of the century. Every storefront, restaurant, hotel, café, etc., was arrayed in prints, and, they were a hot consumer item as well. View two of examples of Japanese prints:

1.Shower on the Ohashi Bridge near Ataka by Utagawa Hiroshige

 2.   Boats in Moonlight by Hokusa


       Debussy, a connoisseur of fine art throughout his life, became dully enchanted with the prints and, for a time, they deeply affected his music.  

            So attracted by the Japanese mystique, the French invited Japan to the World’s Fair held in Paris at the turn of the century. Debussy, present at the grand event, became even more enchanted with the whole of Japanese character as well as the musical language of the orient gained through his hearing of a Javanese Gamelan orchestra, also showcased at the fair. The result was a collection of three pieces of exquisite music known as Estampes. The French word Estampes translates “prints”, immediately showing Debussy’s conscious linking of these pieces to the Japanese art. The collection holds three pieces each depicting a specific image or “print” through sound, the first entitled Pagodes (Pagodas), the second, Jardins Sous la Pluie (Gardens in the Rain), and the third, La Soiree dans Grenade (The Evening in Granada). 


            Pagodes is a piece musically reflecting the character of the orient. Pagodas are beautiful structures, simple yet ornate, used as sacred temples and often baring treasured relics. Small at the bottom, pagodas expand into multi-layered roofs often highly decorated and ornamental. Debussy used specific musical ideas and compositional technics to create a piece emulating the beauty, mystic, and aesthetic of a pagoda.

            As you listen to the piece, note how he depicts the sound of the orient by creating a melody from a pentatonic (5-note) scale, typical of oriental music. This pentatonic scale is used also as the harmonic structure for the piece, a modern technic in which unconventional tonalities (sets of notes different than the traditional major and minor scales) are chosen as a cohesive center. Listen also for Debussy’s imitation of the shimmering sunlight, often bouncing off the roofs of the pagodas, sometimes made of gold or other brilliant metals, by using arabesque technic, a highly ornamental style of music that allows the piano to sparkle and waver.

            Schmitz (1950) noted that the score itself is indicative of the structure of a pagoda through its busy and decorative treble notes, emulating the roofs, placed over long sustained pedal notes denoting the small base structures.  Small details such as melodic motifs that ascend with a big leap and then, in the last two notes, continue the upward motion by a 2nd reflect the curved upper edges of the pagoda, while an almost strict steady beat creates the sense of peace and serene mystique of the spiritual temple.

            Finally, note the musical references and imitation to the oriental Gamelan orchestra made up of mostly percussive instruments including an abundance of gongs and bells.

            Before listening to Pagodes, spend some time viewing images of actual pagodas in Japan. Using the links below, study and experience the details of the structures, the ornate roofs, and the peaceful and careful surroundings they are set in. One can sense an elaborate piece of fine art as well as a spiritual sanctuary amidst a meditative and serene natural setting.

      1.  One Pillar Pagoda in Hanoi, Japan                                                       


       2. Pagoda of Ichijo-ji, a Buddhist Temple in Japan      


        3.    Toji Shingon, Buddhis Temple in Kyoto, Japan  


         Now, use the link below to listen to Pagodes. The recording artist is the world-class pianist, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet. Bavouzet is a highly renowned interpreter of Debussy’s music. His combination of clarity, artistic pedaling, and careful mixing of sounds, bring to life a genuine experience of Debussy’s intention: deliberate mixing of color through pedal, harmonics, and unique harmonic structures without sentimentality. Bavouzet has recorded the complete collection of Debussy’s piano repertoire. Close your eyes and experience the beauty and idea of this temple and its contemplative surroundings through sound.  

Link: Debussy’s Pagodes performed by Jean-Efflam Bavouzet   



Roberts, P. (1996). Images the piano music of claude debussy. Portland, Oregon: Amadeus Press.

Roberts, P. (2008). Claude debussy. New York, New York: Phaidon Press Inc.

Schmitz, R. (1950).  The piano works of claude debussy. New York, New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce Publishers