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Michael Oravitz, University of Northern Colorado School of Music

Formal studies of Debussy’s music have taken varied approaches, from Schenkerian analyses of Felix Salzer, to proportion studies of Roy Howat, to phrase/syntax studies in Richard Parks and Avo Somer, to phrasing and meter correspondences in the works of Christopher Hasty and Parks, to Marianne Wheeldon’s study of Debussy’s cyclical forms, to name a few.   

In my paper/presentation, I engage certain progressive facets of metric designs within selected works of Debussy (one for voice and piano, one for piano solo), to show how Debussy crafts his metric landscapes in order to subtly create formal junctures and partitions that may not immediately or outwardly be heard, but are perceived nonetheless.  These meter-based events are crucial in framing large-scale formal designs that support formal narratives suggested by the piano work’s title and the vocal work’s text .  At times, such metric designs work in line with more traditional formal signifiers such as thematic design and tonality, and at other times, they can work more independently of those traditional signifiers.

Given the seamless nature of many of Debussy’s formal junctures, I show how Debussy employs changes in hypermetric orientation among broader sections in his Book I Prèlude “Le vent dans la plaine” in order to either offset sections that might otherwise be construed as continuous, or, contrastingly, to combine sections that might otherwise be perceived as offset in order to frame a broader arch design.


In certain melodies, Debussy uses fluctuating states of metric and hypermetric stability and instability in order to musically convey the texts’ meanings, at both local, intra-phrase levels and larger, formal-design levels.  Particularly, in “L’ombre des arbes” from Ariettes oubliées, the convention of two-bar introduction is impetus for offsetting two ongoing hypermetric constructs.  The state of despair in the protagonist at the conclusion of the work is set up by an alignment of that offset hypermeter into a calculated build in clear metric orientation that completely dissipates near the work’s end in most drastic fashion in order to mirror the narrative and text of Verlaine’s poem.

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