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Debussy and Symbolism

An aesthetic definition of Symbolism that is not specific to music, and therefore does
not submit to the vague romanticised rhetoric that is usually found in that discourse,
would describe it as applying to art works that seek a relationship with an object or idea
that is absent, and cannot be directly depicted (see Kristeva 2166). As an approach to
music, it is exemplified by the mature works of Debussy, who saw himself consciously
breaking from earlier traditions (Debussy 161 and passim), and therefore needs to be
distinguished from the more primitive notion of programme music, a compositional
approach that relies on depiction of scene or narrative, and which can be found
developing as a recognised form from at least the early-nineteenth century (Scruton 285).
As Debussy is considered the prime exponent of symbolism in music (Burkholder 790), it
is worth examining his mature works, such as Nuages and La Mer, to determine how
we might differentiate symbolic representation, from that of mere depiction.
The ancient Greeks teach us that music is a temporal medium rather than a spatial one.
That is to say, temporal representation is natural in music, but any expression of spatial
or geometric values is not natural, but the result of analogy. For example, if a musical
work is to create a sense of increasing speed (a temporal value), it will do so by
increasing the speed of the music. However, if a musical work is to create a sense of, say,
increasing elevation, it may do so by presenting higher pitches; but these are not
themselves intrinsically higher in a geometric sense. We have been taught to perceive
high notes as high chiefly through the representations of Western notation, where
pitches of a greater frequency (also a temporal value) are shown at a higher position on
the visual staff. This is the same type of representation that has indoctrinated us into
thinking that north on the map is up and that south is down; it is not intrinsic, but
purely a matter of accepted convention.
We may be tempted to argue, then, that because a note is of a higher frequency, i.e. that
its number is higher than the number of a low-frequency note, that the notation is
merely expressing an intrinsic relationship through a geometric means as a direct
depiction of the numerical value. However, the calibration of pitch as vibrations-per-

second, where the higher pitch has the greater number, is also a convention, and could
easily be represented as seconds-per-vibration, in which case the lower pitch would
have the higher number. If we understand the nature of music representation in this way,
we come to realise that all the spatial relationships that can be found in interpretations of
music have no intrinsic relationship with the non-musical idea being described. This
basic understanding of musical representation becomes the starting point of symbolism.
In programme music the basic unit of communication is depiction. In its early form,
we encounter the matching of musical sound for depicted sound, such as Beethovens
depiction of birdsong in the flute in his Sixth Symphony, or their deferral as temporal
values, such as the horse-riding rhythm of the last number of Berliozs The Lamentations
of Faust. As the genre develops, it begins to assign more complex values, but these are
usually associated with emotional or mental states, and which probably find their most
developed expression in Wagners deployment of leitmotiv as a device of psychological
drama (Scruton 286). At the beginning of the new century, French composer Debussy,
who expressed his desire to break with the dominant German traditions (Debussy 12),
returns to representations of nature in order to explore the question of the symbolic in
more depth.
Debussys French background is probably more than merely circumstantial in this desire
for a new approach. His close influence by French poet Stephane Mallarme (Mertens
307) places the composer in direct genealogy with the literary movements that gave rise
to the linguistics of de Saussure in the early 20th century and the later principles of
structuralism (see Foucault 1626). It is these literary-linguistic conceptions that give us
our firm understanding of the role of the symbolic in language and the difficulties that
arise from a study of representation. As an early voice in the development of these
movements, we should consider Debussys contribution to be vital to their later
If we examine the orchestral works Nuages (from Nocturnes) and La Mer, we see that a
stronger orientation to the natural world takes place. These works are not oriented to the

somewhat artificial genre of pastoralism (although his earlier Afternoon of a Faun is

clear link to this tradition); rather his area of focus is more cosmic in scope. Both
Nuages (clouds) and La Mer (the sea) are bodies of water; they are opaque subjects
largely devoid of life. In painting, these may be more associated with the backdrop of the
subject rather than the subject itself, and we may conclude from Debussys focus on these
elemental subjects that the essence of his symbolism is not representation but rather
exploring means of representation. To put it another way: the subject of Nuages is not
the clouds, but the strategies by which the visual and spatial aspects of the clouds can
be represented in the aural and temporal world of music.
As suggested above, the primary focus of symbolist representation in music may be
regarded as the relationship between the temporal and spatial. These concepts are united
in the concept of movement, and we may read both Nuages and La Mer as
representations of motion in the subject. While space cannot be directly depicted in
music, it can be suggested through the illusion of spatial motion, the analogue of which
can be detected in temporal motion. In La Mer, Debussy is comfortable using ideas of the
high or low in pitch, but they are only made viable by their opposition. A downward
motion may be depicted by descent in pitch, but the composer understands that this
motion is relative, and can only be made representational by opposition to a
corresponding ascent in pitch. The precise values of up and down cannot be directly
depicted in isolation from one another, but the binary opposition of up and down can be
depicted by closely corresponding variations of pitch in both directions. This creates a
viable relationship with the visual object, for the surface of the sea is a constant flux of
upward and downward motion, and where the precise meaning of each space is not as
important as the motion that unites them.
In addition to these spatial values, the suggestion of a colour is present in both works, and
it is in this that Debussy identifies another viable method of symbolic representation. The
sounds of a violin or flute, although they are often referred to having tone colour, do not
have any direct relationship to colour in a literal sense. However, when their sounds are
juxtaposed, we are able to garner a sense of relativity that can be applied to photographic

colour in much the same way it can be applied to sonic colour. The photographic
requirement for representing the sea or an array of clouds may be a palette of three main
colours: say, blue, white and pink. The composer can create a sense of this palette by
emphasising small elements of the orchestral ensemble: in the case of La Mer this would
seem to correspond to flute, cor Anglais and French horn, with the massed strings used to
provide shape and shading. By opposing these sonic colours, we are given the sense of
relationship and distance between the colours of the natural world and this makes it easier
for us to consider the contrasts in tone as symbolised contrasts in colour.
So, we see that multiple strategies for creating a relationship between the visual realm of
nature and the sonic space of the orchestra have gone into the composition of these
works. The focus is not on methods of direct depiction, but the development of relative
elements in the musical work that can correspond, on a symbolic level, to the relative
elements of the visual world. Debussy uses various other musical devices to create
similar relations between the musical and the visual, and some of these, such as the
oscillation of dynamics to depict a contrast between calm and stormy conditions, should
be regarded as belonging to the realm of depiction rather than the symbolic, but in this
new context, the composer is demonstrating that the representations of sound, or the
representations of temporal values, are simply among the of the wide range of strategies
that may be employed in music towards the goal of symbolic representation.
Although many of his specific innovations were influential on the musical movements
that followed, Debussys symbolism never developed into an encompassing musical
movement in its own right (Mertens 311). Indeed, when we read Debussys own
reflections on the state of music in Europe at the turn of the century, many of the hopes
he expressed for the future of art music would prove be antithetical to later
developments.1 Although his music may be aesthetically satisfying, it is possible to argue
that his greater artistic legacy was not to music, but resides in his contribution to the
development of French intellectual thought. His explorations of symbolism through

How can we preserve our finesse, our spirit, if we insist on being so preoccupied with so many details of
composition, for example, (Debussy 12).

music offer us insights into the functions of language and representation that would give
rise to the principles of structuralism, and which would therefore have a leading role in
defining the human intellectual process in the post-war era.
Works Cited
Burkholder, J. Peter, et al. A History of Western Music. Eighth Edition. New York:
Norton, 2010.
Debussy, Claude. Three Articles for Music Journals, in Source Readings in Music
History: The Twentieth Century. Robert Morgan, ed. New York: Norton, 1998.
161 166. Print.
Kristeva, Julia. Revolution in Poetic Langauge, in The Norton Anthology of Theory and
Criticism. New York: Norton, 2001. 21692179. Print.
Mertens, Corneel. Debussy, Claude, in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and
Musicians. Volume 5. Stanley Sadie, ed. London: Macmillan, 1980. 292314.
Scruton, Roger. Programme Music, in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and
Musicians. Volume 15. Stanley Sadie, ed. London: Macmillan, 1980. 285287.