dear diary...

A Letter to Debussy

Bonjour Monsieur,

Just recently, I stumbled upon a playlist of your pieces on Spotify and I must say that I am very thankful for that. In this day and age, it is simply too hard to find music as divine and beautifully complex as yours. Your pieces leave me with a very rich feeling and often, when it ends, I will feel as if I had just woken up from a reverie. Google tells me that you were an impressionist composer. I have heard of impressionism in art before. They typically have quick, thin brushstrokes, their objects lack defining outlines and they omit minute details. This made me wonder: what makes your pieces impressionistic? Here are my thoughts on one of your masterpieces, Clair de Lune, in my humble attempt to understand musical impressionism.

Clair de Lune has a magical ability to evoke different moods. I feel that it evokes several different qualities and auras of a moonlit landscape. The notes were like a force. This force was strong enough to nudge my thoughts in a certain direction but not impose a definite shape on them. In a way, although your notes inspire a certain vibe, I still had the freedom and space to project my own imaginations onto the piece.

In the opening 14 bars, there is a general stillness and tranquility marked by pianissimo in dynamics. There is not much movement going on in the first 8 bars as the left hand sustains a thinly constructed harmonic line that slowly descends while the right hand delivers the melodic theme that clearly stands out from the mellow harmonic backing. These few bars alone conjured in me a sense of pensiveness, a peaceful imagery of a lonesome moon.

This peacefulness, however, is soon shattered and disturbed as you gave the next section a different texture. From bar 27, the harmonic line adopts an arpeggioc texture, rendering more movement and liveliness. This section brings to my mind the whirling cells of clouds in Van Gogh’s The Starry Night. Amidst the flurry of movements (of the air particles and light in the painting; of the arpeggiation of the chords), there still is an established order – a distinctive melodic line stands out in the sopra voce just as how in the painting, the general image of the stars and the moon are not undermined by the seemingly chaotic brush strokes.

After several bars, you brought back the melancholic theme of the first 8 bars. I noticed that you modified the theme quite a bit. I interpreted this thematic recurrence as something like a memory – an imperfect one – of the tranquility evoked in the opening bars. Just like how the theme recurs with a structurally different baseline and tonal quality, our memories of things from the past can never be as perfect as the past itself. It is sometimes effaced by the passage of time and our limited capacity to remember perfectly. Sometimes, our imagination and emotions at the time of remembering embellish and enrich the memory, just like how the harmonic line thicken with the addition of more notes.

My conclusion is that, in the same way that an impressionistic painting aims to make viewers grasp the general mood and form of the object, impressionistic compositions like yours seek to inspire rather than impose a certain atmosphere and image. I would love to hear from you about the ways in which you achieve this through notes and harmonies.