debussy and exoticism – pagodes: an impressionistic fusion

the above is the title of the paper i wrote first semester this year, in a music “history” course (not quite all history, it’s hard to explain) about debussy’s pagodes, from estampes. it was actually the first, new piece of music i learned this academic year and because we had to incorporate some kind of social context or something to our paper, i chose to look at exoticism/fusion in debussy’s music, specifically focusing on pour le piano, and of course, pagodes. since i actually wrote an entire paper (albeit not long or too complex) on the subject, i thought why not present my findings? besides, i did get an A+ on it.

so, i’m going to somehow condense this 1700-word essay (see, i told you it’s short) into a slightly not-as-lengthy blog post. first things first, need to present you with the piece. i deliberately chose one without the score, so just sit back, relax, and enjoy. see what faraway land your mind flies off to.

beautiful, isn’t it? also… really difficult to play, especially those last measures – those running weird groupings of sixteenths in the right hand are TEDIOUS! still have yet to master them…

anyways, unlike my other posts, i’m going to actually analyze it. and since it shall be more lengthy than other posts (because much more content and i’ve actually done a lot of research), i’ll give you this option:

☝ well, if you don’t see what i’m talking about, i guess it means you’re on the actual blog post and not just on my general blog, if you know what i mean? and i guess it means you just have to read the rest of my post haha

of course, like any essay (most of them), a thesis needs to be written and some background information/context, so here’s exactly what i wrote in my paper since i believe it’s an adequate introduction:

Claude Debussy’s experiences with exotic music, especially with the Javanese gamelan, were fundamental in the creation of an innovative and distinct style of his own: Impressionism. By examining his pieces Pour le Piano (1901) and Pagodes from Estampes (1903), written during a transitional stage of his career, in this paper I will discuss how musical exoticism fused with Western elements have shaped his writing.

(we were allowed to use personal pronouns, by the ways, since we were presenting our views and our analyses.)

another excerpt – the introduction and conclusion – from the first section, on pour le piano (i mean hey, i’ve already written it so efficiently so why not just copy down what i wrote, right?):

Debussy had an affinity for defying traditional Western harmonic rules and experimenting with unique sonorities. Instead, he wanted to create music that could be “supple enough to adapt itself to the lyrical effusions of the soul and the fantasy of dreams.”[1] His solo piano piece Pour le piano served as a transition between his earlier, more Western musical law-abiding compositions and the emergence of his Impressionistic style. It was written in 1901, a decade after Debussy’s initial exposure to the Javanese Gamelan at the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle, as hinted by small moments of exoticism in the piece. The piece is divided into three parts: Prélude, Sarabande, and Toccata.

Following Pour le piano, Debussy decided to further experiment with the sonorities he heard while observing the Javanese gamelan at the Exposition. Using more of the newer techniques from Pour le piano, but also keeping in touch with some Western elements, he went on to compose what is arguably the most famous and effective gamelan in Western repertory: Pagodes.

basically, i included this piece to demonstrate debussy’s integration of more “traditional” elements of writing (namely baroque) and his developing style of impressionistic techniques.

next section: pagodes. and the introductory sentences:

By fusing Western techniques learned at the Paris Conservatoire and Eastern elements from the 1889 and 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle, Debussy was able to introduce a sample of exotic music easily accessible to the European ear.

to clarify, a gamelan is sort of like an orchestra, but very percussive – it’s actually pretty interesting, look it up. having heard one at the expo, debussy extracted some of the elements of the gamelan and incorporated them into his own music, such as bass suspensions to represent the gongs, the pentatonic scale to mimic the gamelan scale, and layering to symbolize the gradual addition of instruments in the gamelan.

i took on the standpoint that debussy needed his music to appeal to the european ear, so he chose to keep the traditional western harmonic structure in pagodes; the oriental sound of the gamelan would have been slightly too exotic for his listeners. i also believe that it wasn’t his intention to replicate the gamelan accurately – it wasn’t possible to do so anyways, on the equal-tempered tuning of the piano – some notes of the gamelan instruments cannot be played on piano as it may fall between two semitones/keys – but to share his listening experience and discovery with his listeners, sort of like giving them a small taste of what a javanese gamelan sounds like. it’s fairly fascinating, if you ask me.

well, i hope you understood the gist of what i was talking about and wanted to convey. any questions or need for clarifications, feel free to shoot me a message via comment box below, i’ll be happy to answer.

oh, i did mention that i’m playing this piece, right? hence it’s categorized as repertoire.

that’s all for now


[1] Kristine Forney and Joseph Machlis, The Enjoyment of Music: An Introduction to Perceptive Listening (Tenth Edition) (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2007), 468.