Claude Debussy: “Pagodes” from Estampes

This past week, I travelled to Warren Dunes State Park on the Eastern Shore of Lake Michigan, just north of the Indiana State line.  Our family spent many a hot summer day there during my early years.  A central feature is the sand dune named, aptly, Tower Hill, which rises 240 feet above Lake Michigan.  Despite it being an unseasonably hot October day, the beach was nearly deserted save for a few sun worshippers.  My wife and I climbed the hill on the slope of which we encountered a young man, maybe in his late 20s, who had a sand board.  When we got to his level, he offered to let us ride the board down.  Between runs, while he waxed the board, he told us a bit about his life.  He worked with youth on the weekends at his church and had a job as a forklift operator at a factory nearby.  He had prayed to find a job and was thankful for this one, which “God had sent me.”  His dream was to open a shop where he could sell sand boards, surf boards, hang gliders and parasails.  He gave us a wonderful gift of letting us recapture on the sand, the fun of winter sledding runs.

Tower Hill always held a fascination for me and it was also became a destination during college holidays and vacations.  Once I travelled there with some friends to watch the ice floes.  Lake Michigan often freezes solid in the winter and in the spring when the ice starts to thaw, it breaks into huge chunks which get shoved together and push upward like huge cubist sculptures.  Another time, we came late at night during Thanksgiving break and sat–fairly tipsy–on the beach, feeling the wind blow the bracing lake’s spray in our faces.

With such natural wonders around, who could not develop a deep love for the outdoors and water.  Natural phenomenon like those dunes, Lake Michigan itself, and the deep, unspoiled forests that ran lakeside, inspired me and made me feel alive.  What an impression!

So for the next few postings, I’m going to write about pieces of music that were either inspired by nature or which I associate with nature or the seasons.

Debussy seems like a good composer to start with, because he stands at the forefront of the impressionistic movement in music. In a good number of his works, he tries to capture the emotional impressions that nature made on him. He gave his works titles like La Mer (the Sea), Gardens in the Rain, Reflections in Water, and today’s piece, Pagodes. Debussy wrote Pagodes after having heard Indonesian gamelan music performed at the International Exposition of 1899 and 1900.

The gamelan is an orchestra consisting of gongs, bowed and woodwind instruments, drums, rattles, and metal marimbas struck with hammers. Some gamelan music seems to unfold without a conventional time signature and therefore has a mystical, trance-like feel to it. (Listen to a piece here.)  The music of the gamelan is based on the pentatonic scale, which we instantly recognize as typical of oriental music. It is fitting then that he called this piece Pagodas.

“Pagodes” is the first of the three pieces in “Estampes.” In these three pieces, Debussy tried to capture the feeling of three excursions to Asia, Spain, and France. The interesting thing is that these were purely imaginary voyages, taken in the composer’s frontal lobes, which in portraits of Debussy, appear abnormally large.

“Pagodes” starts out with the piano tinkling away in a way that immediately makes me think of a stroll in a garden during or right after a Spring shower. The fauna is lush and dark green and we turn the corner and see a pagoda across a small pond. As we do, the piano grows louder imitating the crash of the gamelan gongs and the metallic keys of the marimbas. It turns peaceful again as we continue our stroll until we glimpse another pagoda, and then returns to the rain motif until it dies out in at the end.

This is almost anti-melodic music. It is a dialog between the pianist and the piano. It is perfect for sitting by the window on a rainy, late winter day.

Debussy Biography

Description of Estampes from French Wikipedia

Download MP3 or buy CD from Amazon


About kurtnemes
Writer and Education Professional. Specialties include Ethics, Personal Memoir, Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity (& what interests me.)

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