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Debussy´s Nocturnes and Javanese Music

By Daniel Mateos MorenoRead his Résumé.

A Javanese Gamelan

N. E.: Normalmente publicamos artículos en español. Sin embargo, estamos abiertos a excepciones en caso de recibir un artículo inédito en otro idioma que merezca especial interés.

The Nocturnes are three pieces of contrasting character: Nuages, Fétes y SirPnes.

Speaking in general terms, the whole piece is a set of three movements: Tranquilo-Vivo-Tranquilo. Indeed, this is a psychological or perceptual division since the concepts -that we will analyze in this article- and the harmony maintains thru the piece, though the tempo changes sometimes. The character of each piece evokes clearly this division in three different parts; while Nuages is a still, quiet piece, Fétes uses rhythmic meters, and again in SirPnes we reach a more peaceful but intense feeling.

About the harmony of the whole piece, we believe on the theory given by Prof. Mahmood-Reza Vali about the polar harmony: The two sets or collections, which can be built as the only two possible twelve-tone scales in our temperament, alternate in every section or chord, polarizing the piece like two contrary forces or poles.

If we speak in terms of functional harmony (or Rameaús harmony), though awkward for analyzing this music that pretends to break its limits, we could say that the first movement (Nuatges) is in b minor. The second movement, following the key signature indication, starts in F (assumedly minor, though the third is intentionally suppressed) and later changes to A major. The third movement seems to start with F sharp as the dominant of B. Those are only key centers.

Speaking deeply about the harmony, it is specially interesting the first movement. Although it is in B minor, the dominant is completely avoided, a tradition inherited from the 19th century, specially from Brahms, trying to scape from Beethoveńs costumes.

It is remarkable the use of the four possible augmented chords, and the use of the half diminished or Tristan chords. The most interesting thing is that the unique tone that is a member of the four Tristan chords at the same time is B, which is the main tonality of the piece.

The structure of Nuages is A-B-A: Cluster two or 2nd whole tone collection is mainly used in the first and last section (A), and cluster one or 1st whole tone collection in the first. Following the rehearsal marks, at the first we observe the B chord. In the 2nd, we see the transition or descending 9th chords, and later B minor. Transitional chords are used throughout the whole piece, specially by using series of ninth and seventh chords.

As an anecdote, it is said that the choral pattern at the beginning of the first movement is inspired by Mussorgskýs song O Konchen Prazdnyi.

The Fétes is completely based in a rhythm and a melodic theme that develops thru the piece. This theme is composed in a mode or scale, often a seven-tone scale (javanese pPlog scale). The rhythm is an obstinato. At the middle of this second piece there is a key and quality change that precede a big climatic moment where an evolved version of the theme is greatly exposed with the rhythmic filling always present. Little by little it reaches a more calm quality until the end of this movement.

The third movements, SirPnes, evokes again a very impressionistic calm. As said by Claude V. Palisca, there is a impression of movement but no harmonic direction, a perfect analogy for slowly moving clouds and the chant of the sirPnes. This chant is the main thematic element of this last movement. It character is clearly melismatic, moving inside of pentatonic scales. Some climatic points bend with other peaceful but intense moments, creating a generic formal structure sustained by this changes and by the chant, with an amazing and surprising ending in B Major.

The relation with the music of Java is specially bright in this piece. This relation is present in some ways: The texture, the mode or scale and the instrumentation.

About the texture, some instruments are given a static background as in Javanese gamelan is done by gongs and xylophones, while others, like the flute and harp, are given pentatonic scales. In the first movement, this gamelan influence can be seen specially in the B section of the work, beginning at measure sixty-four.

The five tone javanese SlPndro scale is very used, specially in the first and last movements. Even the seven-tone javanese pPlog scale can be heard in the melodic movements and scales of the 2nd movement.

The sirPne chant of the last movement uses clearly half-tone melodies, modal scales and pentatonic scales, inspired by the music of the Gamelans (Javanese sets, as those of our western orchestras).

Summarizing, this piece is a wonderful example of impressionism inspired by exoticism and using it to break the restrictions of the functional harmony and also breaking the instrumentation inherited from the romantic period. This polar harmony has no direction but a circle: from one pole to other. This concept created by Debussy was so revolutionary in his time that it still remains so.