Debussy always resisted the term “Impressionism”, although the appellation fit his music like a glove. Whether his resistance was due to a prodigious ego or simply because he believed that the term “Impressionism” should solely denote the painting style that had become popular around the same time as his music, the term has continued to shadow his music, not without reason. Debussy’s commitment to innovation, to bending the rules of composition in order to reveal the sublime and ethereal underneath is too reminiscent of the Impressionist focus on the movement and essence of light to ever completely disassociate the two. The String Quartet in G minor is the only piece Debussy would write for string quartet, a surprising fact given the almost overwhelming wealth of ideas brought forth on this piece.
While the Quartet conforms to standard musical rules, it demonstrates a playful elasticity regarding how and where they should be employed. Much like the works of the Impressionist painters, the structure of the piece is hazy and indistinct, with rigid form being muddled and played with to create a fluid, dynamic effect. The title itself has only a vague bearing on the reality of the piece. Ostensibly in G minor, there are key changes throughout the piece, which finally resolves in G major. The Op. 10 designation has little real bearing on where chronologically this work finds itself in Debussy’s oeuvre. This willingness to play with convention without wholly disavowing it extends to the music itself. The first movement seems to be drawn from the sonata form, with a theme that is revisited throughout the piece, although the format doesn’t seem to be followed very strictly. Elements such as these indicate just how much Debussy’s music fits the Impressionist descriptor, with his music revealing the “impression” of a form and structure that, while very much present, is subordinate to atmosphere, tone and texture.
The Quartet is made up of four movements, running for about 25 minutes in total. Throughout the first two movements an almost frantic energy runs like an undercurrent through even the most sedate passages, with glissandos and sudden blasts of chords exploding into being, seemingly out of nowhere. Dynamics shift just as suddenly, from murky pianissimo to blaring fortissimo. It’s in the third and fourth movements that Debussy brings the more restrained, melodic tendencies of his music to the fore, slower tempos and more gradual shifts in rhythm and dynamics making the third movement more “conventional” sounding, although there are several unusual tempo shifts and progressions.
Texture and atmosphere are key elements of the Quartet, a plethora of bowing techniques (some which are, as far as I know, fairly unconventional for the time) bringing forth a dizzying variety of timbres and textures as the piece progresses. Passages of frenetic pizzicato punctuate the first two movements. Harmonies appear, change and shift almost without warning. The tempoof the piece is constantly shifting as well, from conventional 4/4 time to the highly unusual 15/8 in the third movement, shifts that, although often sudden and extreme, sound fluid, natural and effortless. In keeping with the Impressionist style, the melody is almost buried in the rest of the piece, dissonance and swirling harmony making the piece a riotous cacophony of mood and texture. And yet, despite the constant shifts in key and tempo, it’s never an unpleasant piece to listen to, as the unity, fluidity and beauty of the piece combined with the more unusual elements make it exciting and entrancing throughout.
The String Quartet in G minor seems like a radically innovative and difficult piece for its time period, and in many ways it is. But when listening to the piece, it’s helpful to go back to the Impressionism of Monet and Renoir. In both music and painting, the style played around with the conventional rules, but only to bring forward aspects of the work that would have been obscured by more traditional forms. Impressionism was more concerned with capturing the essence of light than capturing what that light illuminated. In many ways, musical Impressionism is the same. The String Quartet in G minor uses what works for the piece, utilizing conventional form without binding itself to it in order to maximize the impact of texture, tone-color and tempo. This, as well as its unique status as Debussy’s only quartet, makes it not only highly representative of Impressionism, but one of my favorite musical works as well.