Debussy's tonality: A formal perspective

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9 Scopus citations


Debussy as a tonal composer: reception and stylistic evolution There are many possible ways to approach the question of Debussy's tonality, which over the last fifty years has inspired an unusually diverse range of critical and analytical viewpoints. The focus here will be on tonality's relationship with other aspects of formal process (especially thematic):how the nature of this relationship serves both to connect Debussy's music with earlier traditions of tonal composition and to set it apart from such traditions. First, though, we must consider the more fundamental issue of the music's status as tonal music: how Debussy adapted his inheritance of late Romantic chromatic tonality to the service of a modernist musical outlook and how the music expresses tonal function in an idiomatically Debussyan way. As a preliminary observation we could note a striking divergence of perception Between musical scholars (especially analysts) on the one hand and the listening public on the other, regarding Debussy's harmonic language or tonal practice in a general sense. While analysts have usually considered this aspect of Debussy's art to be rather problematic in the sense of abstruse, elusive or otherwise difficult to grasp (and hence to explain through analysis), it would be fair to say that this perception has not been shared by concert audiences; on the contrary, Debussy remains one of the most enduringly popular composers of the post-Romantic era. Although there are many reasons for his music's evident accessibility, not least among them is surely its instantly identifiable tonal idiom or ‘accent'. Debussy's tonality, while perennially new and exotic-sounding, yet retains powerful and familiar resonances from the tonal language of his predecessors; it exhibits a strong sense of tonal centre, expressed through vividly projected attributes of tonal function both melodically and harmonically.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge Companion to Debussy
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages24
ISBN (Electronic)9780511998768
ISBN (Print)0521654785, 9780521652438
StatePublished - Jan 1 2003

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities


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