Impressionism, Rhythm and Pitch

Debussy: Jeux (1912)

The piece opens with quiet, mysterious, held chords punctuated by plucked notes on the harp.  It has an element of playfulness – sliding chromatic passages, trills and grace notes.  This is interrupted by some ominous bass notes which give the sense of a story being told.  It alternates between rhythmic passages (often involving the tambourine) and more rubato, expressive sections.  The addition of a celeste and two harps to the orchestra creates a rich, full sound and an ‘other-worldly’ association.  There are also fiery, dramatic sections which  make use of timpani, cymbals and tremolo strings.

Not only are the thematic motifs very short, but the mood changes rapidly which is well suited to drama and dance; I can easily imagine the focus moving between different characters as the story unfolds.  The different moods are created by tempo changes, as well as dynamics, instrumentation and key.  Debussy uses a lot of chromaticism, but within the context of a clearly identifiable tonal centre.

Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring (1913)

The slow, gentle opening on the bassoon doesn’t give much warning of the drama that soon ensues!  The orchestral parts sometimes sound almost completely unrelated to one other, creating a chaotic effect.  There are huge contrasts in dynamics throughout the piece (from pppp to fff), dissonant chords and frequent changes of time signature.  In the famous ‘Augers of Spring section’, the repeated quavers are accented in different places from bar to bar and also alternate between f and subito p – the overall effect is startling. The piece is generally quite bass heavy, and full of sudden, accented chords.  Timpani is also used heavily, sometimes for prolonged passages which is unusual and has an alarming effect.

In the opening of the ‘Spring Rounds’ section, the high pitched Eb clarinet is used, doubling with the bass clarinet so we can hear both extremes of register together which is a little unsettling.  This section goes on to a distinctive syncopated passage in the bass clarinets.  Rhythm is a key feature throughout – it drives the piece forwards and the constant change in meter and unexpected accented chords play a big part in the dramatic and frankly rather terrifying character.

Schoenberg: Pierrot Lunaire (1913)

This piece is scored for chamber ensemble and female voice.  It is atonal, written without a key signature and full of accidentals.  I personally find the Sprechstimmer style of “speech-singing” a little creepy – particularly when combined with the atonal accompaniment.  The singer slides on and off the notes (resembling natural speech patterns), sounding desperate and pleading in places.  There are also some unusual instrumental effects, such as flutter tongue on the flute, harmonics and a direction to the cellist to play “am steg” (on the bridge).  Each movement / poem is written for a different combination of instruments.  ‘Der kranken Mond’ (‘The sick moon’) is written for solo flute and voice, creating an intimate atmosphere.  In contrast ‘Der Monfleck’ (‘The moonspot’) includes voice, piccolo, clarinet, violin, cello and piano – the fast paced, independent chromatic lines sound quite chaotic.


The three pieces described above were written around the same time in the early twentieth century and all of them are in some sense telling a story, but in very different ways.  Jeux contains sections to be played expressively and with rubato, and the impressionist style is evident from short arpeggiated gestures, parallel thirds and sixths and strong use of chromaticism.  Stravinsky’s work is also chromatic, but instead of being free and expressive, it is very strongly rhythmic and syncopated, as well as dissonant in places. Schoenberg’s piece was written for a much smaller group of instruments and the characteristic Sprechstimmer style of singing.  Each movement sets its own unique mood, and the piece has a more ethereal feel, less dramatic than Jeux and The Rite of Spring which both have much faster paced changes in tempo, mood and dynamics. All of the movements in Pierrot Lunaire are atonal, some also have only a vague sense of pulse, contrasting with both the Debussy and Stravinsky which were written for ballet and hence have a much stronger emphasis on rhythm.


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