Debussy's Musical Impressionism: Petite Suite Insights

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Claude Debussy (1862-1918) was one of the most important composers of his time and is considered the founder of the impressionist movement, essentially a one-person revolution. Born in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, Debussy was the eldest of five children of a crockery shop owner and a seamstress. Despite early dreams of becoming a virtuoso pianist, Debussy found greater success working as a composer, producing his first works as a teenager. His first piano work was written at age 18, and within a few years, he was composing symphonies, cantatas and operas.

The origin of the his impressionistic music stemmed from the Impressionistic art of compatriots- Monet, Renoir, Manet, and others, with the tendency to hint at an idea rather than state boldly, to feature color and atmosphere over Germanic clarity.

The piano remained his main instrument and he ultimately became best known for his mature works for the instrument. His piano music is distinctive for its luminous tonal colors and often evoke an other-wordly and ethereal sense.

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This is a result of his skillful use of parallel chords, treatments of layers of refined sound, unresolved harmonies, unusual pedal effects, free modulatory procedures, and full exploitation of the piano’s resources.

Debussy was only 24 years old when he began working on the 4-hand Petite Suite. The charming 4-movement suite was written about the same time as his two Arabesques for piano, conjuring a similar sense of lightness and delicacy, as well as conveying the same immediate charm. The work was originally conceived for piano, but was later re-scored for full orchestras.

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The reworking of Petite Suite for orchestra was accomplished not by Debussy himself, but by Henri Boesser, a slightly younger French composer who was noted for his orchestration skills. In its original form for piano, Petite Suite was first performed on February 2, 1889 by Debussy in collaboration with the pianist-publisher Jacques Durand. Transcriptions for string quartet, flute solo, saxophone solos, and other instrumentations have been written and performed. This works has a simple lyricism that contrasts with much of the composer's music from the late 1880's

Like the paintings of the Impressionists, most of Debussy’s music including the Petite Suite is inspired by the outdoors, suggesting moods and giving glimpses of nature. For Debussy, music always began where words and sight left off.

The first movements of Debussy’s Petite Suite of 1889 are drawn from two poems of Verlaine’s 1869 volume Fêtes galantes. The poems evoke the era of 18th-century aristocrats on country outings, the world depicted in the fanciful paintings of Fragonard and Watteau.

En Bateau is one of the composer’s “water pieces’ presenting a delicate theme reminiscent of Faure rippling accompaniment. It suggests revelers in a boat have their minds on romantic trysts as they sail at dusk on a dark lake. Debussy’s music captures perfectly a mood of water-borne serenity and languor, opening with a kind of musical sigh that made the Petite Suite immediately popular with a wide audience.

The next movement, entitled Cortge, Procession conveys the idea that boat revelers are playfully making their way along a promenade to retire from the boat ride.

The third movement Menuet, triple metered dance, and fourth, Ballet although not set to a particular poem articulate broadly the nostalgia and the sparkle held in balance throughout the poems of Fêtes galantes. The final movement is an energetic, festive dance movement with the title Ballet.

Updated: Nov 30, 2023
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Debussy's Musical Impressionism: Petite Suite Insights. (2016, Oct 07). Retrieved from

Debussy's Musical Impressionism: Petite Suite Insights essay
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