In my previous work, I have focused on both tonal and post-tonal prolongational structures in Debussy. In L’Isle joyeuse a conventional Schenkerian Ursatz governs less conventional local elements. The prelude Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest, on the other hand, exemplifies a purely non-conventional structure: the upper voice arpeggiates an added-sixth chord (F#–A#–C#–D#), which also serves as a referential, functionally stable foreground harmony. In both cases, the linear framework is lucidly expressed in extreme registers and buttressed by gestural parallelism. The significance of these frameworks is also reinforced by their coordination with several other musical aspects; in particular, the attainment of the structural goal coincides with the dramatic climax in both cases. In L’Isle joyeuse, this is largely effected by the coupling of the Ursatz progression with a “plot” that involves characteristically Debussyian sonoric types, progressing from the whole-tone set, through the “acoustic,” to the diatonic, the last of which is required by the Ursatz progression.
In other pieces by Debussy, however, compositional activity seems to center on aspects that are less neatly coordinated with linear frameworks, even if such frameworks exist. While such pieces are less optimal for illustrating a theoretical project focusing on prolongational structures, this by no means implies that they are aesthetically inferior or less significant. In the present conference I will seize the opportunity to explore such example, the prelude Le vent dans la plaine. While a large-scale linear framework Eb–Gb–Ab–Bb is identifiable, the voice-leading goal Bb does not coincide with the dramatic climax. Instead the climax is formed by a chromatic series of major triads Gb–G–Ab. Structurally, Ab is a passing tone, but its expression is crucially informed by its articulatory detachment from the goal Bb, a feature that is also reflected in several foreground details.
In the analysis, I will show in detail how Debussy approaches the climactic configuration by gradually introducing, combining, and reinforcing its ingredients, which I shall call energizing features. The subsequent events, in turn, are characterized by the dismantling, impairment, and elimination of these features. While both the ABACABA formal scheme and the linear structure suggest that the climactic C section is followed by a return to the original situation, the increasing and decreasing significance of the energizing features form a dramatic curve which clearly differentiates the events before and after the climax. One way to view the formal scheme is thus just as a foil or scenery for the dramatic events.
The analysis illustrates one way in which formal or prolongational concepts may tell us less about what is essential in music, regarding both the composer’s actions and the listener’s temporal experience. This, of course, is a significant meta-theoretical point. More generally, we might also consider whether a theoretical orientation in general is always conducive for meaningful analysis, since theorizing presupposes generalizing but the charm of music—Debussy’s music in particular—partly relies on unique compositional insights.
While this suggests that theory may be insufficient for analysis, theory is certainly useful and necessary for analysis. Good Debussy analysis requires several generalizable notions and I will also make a modest contribution regarding such notions, pointing out the recurring significance of the transpostion of the acoustic sonority that has its root at the distance of the minor sixth in relation to the tonal center. This sonority, which has its historical roots in common-tone augmented sixth chords, is featured in all the preceding examples and in several others. In Des pas sur la neige it helps to bridge the first and the second section by creating a non-coincidence of formal and structural boundaries. This prelude also provides a very different example of a Debussyian drama, one with a pianissimo culmination, but for reasons of time it may prove to be impossible to discuss this example now...