[1] Henri Dutilleux, Music – Mystery and Memory, Conversations with Claude Glayman, trans. Roger Nichols (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001) p.20.
[2] With his characteristic tongue-in-cheek humour, Erik Satie satirised the trend for Spanish-inspired compositions of the period in ‘Españaña’ from Croquis et agaceries d’un gros bonhomme en bois (1913) for piano.
[3] Chabrier, Duparc, d’Indy and Fauré became associated with Le petit Bayreuth, a group of artists, writers and musicians who admired and promoted Wagner’s music. Henri Fantin-Latour’s painting Autour du piano (1885), preserved at the Musée d’Orsay, depicts members of Le petit Bayreuth with Chabrier in prime position at the piano.
[4] Debussy on Music, collected by François Lesure, ed. and trans. Richard Langham Smith (Ithaca New York: Cornell University Press, 1988) p.66.
[5] Debussy, ‘Parsifal and the Société des Grandes Auditions de France’, Gil Blas 6 April 1903, reproduced in Debussy on Music (1988) p.167.
[6] Debussy, ‘German Influence on French Music’, Mercure de France January 1903, reproduced in Debussy on Music (1988) p.83.
[7] In 1903 Ravel formed Les Apaches, a group of musicians and intellectuals who shared a mutual admiration for Russian composers. They adopted the opening of Borodin’s Second Symphony as the group ‘motto’ at Ravel’s recommendation.
[8] Calvocoressi’s French translation of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Principles of Orchestration was published in 1914. 

The Magic of Timbre

Caroline Rae

The music of Debussy and Ravel is often described in terms of its luxuriant orchestral colourism, harmonic sensuality and exploration of sound as timbre, attributes considered quintessentially French. Henri Dutilleux spoke of the ‘magic of timbre’ as being among the most important attributes of a composer and, borrowing a title from one of Ravel’s early works, used the expression sites auriculaires – points of beauty for the ear – to suggest the role of sound colour as an inspirational force. [1] Many other 20th-century French composers, including Messiaen, Boulez and the Spectralists, have demonstrated a fascination for sound as timbre, their exploration of new textural relationships paralleling the ways painters in 20th-century France sought new means of depicting light and blending colour. So what is this French orchestral sound world and how did it evolve? 

Ironically, it was an enthusiasm for foreign music that stimulated French composers to forge new discoveries in sound and timbre, the seeds of 20th-century innovation being rooted in the late 19th century. At the same time that Wagnerian fervour gripped fin de siècle Paris, the 1889 Exposition universelle raised the curtain on the orientalist revelation that was the discovery of the Indonesian gamelan and the music of the Russian Five. Into this fertile mix came another exotic ‘other’ – Spain. Bizet’s Carmen (1875), Chabrier’s España (1883) and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio espagnole (1887) stimulated a fascination for evocations of Spanish music that was fuelled by the presence of Spanish composers in Paris, including Falla, Albéniz and Granados. Debussy’s Ibéria (1908) from the orchestral Images (1905–12) is one of the composer’s many Spanish-inspired works, and appeared the same year that Ravel completed his Rapsodie espagnole, which includes his orchestration of the ‘Habanera’ from Sites auriculaires (1897). (The term ‘habanera’ is sometimes incorrectly written as ‘habañera’; the addition of the tilde changes the meaning from a dance-form originating in Havana to a bathroom wastepipe!) Although Debussy barely visited Spain, his evocations being of an imagined exotic land, Ravel had closer personal contact through his Basque mother who introduced him to Iberian folk music from his earliest childhood. Ravel’s fascination for Spain spanned his entire compositional career. [2]

So why were these influences significant for the development of French orchestral sound? Deeply influencing the young Debussy as well as a host of his contemporaries including Emmanuel Chabrier, Henri Duparc, Vincent d’Indy, Gabriel Fauré, Ernest Chausson and Camille Saint-Saëns, Wagner’s expressive sensuality and sonorous orchestral textures opened up new ways of exploring orchestral colour through unusual instrumental combinations, extended unison textures, resonating pedal-notes, radiant chordal progressions and expressive use of woodwind solos. Debussy’s La damoiselle élue (1888–89) and Pelléas et Mélisande (1893–1902) explore many ideas derived from Wagner and were particularly influenced in their approach to orchestral timbre by Parsifal whose sonorities Debussy described as an orchestra ‘lit from behind’ [4]. Debussy’s subtly shifting tonalities and avoidance of intermediate cadential resolutions also owed much to Wagner whose revolutionary chromaticism, epitomised by the ambiguities of the ‘Tristan chord’, liberated ideas concerning harmonic organisation. Yet, while Debussy described Parsifal as ‘one of the most beautiful edifices in sound ever raised to the eternal glory of music’, he was also critical of those who adopted Wagnerian formulae. [5] Rather than merely imitate Wagner, Debussy absorbed ideas into his own idiom being equally aware that the influence was one from which he needed to escape; he later declared Wagner to be ‘a beautiful sunset mistaken for a sunrise’. [6]

Debussy established a quintessentially French orchestral palette in his Prélude à L’après-midi d’un faune (1892–94), its subtlety of instrumental and harmonic colouration being among his most sensuous works. Exploiting the use of silence as an additional colour, Debussy explored a range of effects in an orchestration that is rich but never thick; harmonics, individual pizzicato notes and harp glissandos highlight textures as if painting in sound. While the solo flute is particularly featured to suggest the faun – the dreaming protagonist of Mallarmé’s poem – other solo woodwind are dovetailed together, sometimes with horns, to nuance the colouration of seamless melodic lines, muted divisi strings providing a sound-carpet of harmonic warmth with harps enhancing the resonance. More than expressive tools, dynamic markings serve to articulate the work’s unusual combination of arch and Golden Section structures. Debussy’s colours are at their most magical in the work’s final moments where an echo of the opening theme is heard on muted horns underpinned by a pair of violins, the final cadence being articulated by harp harmonics and antique cymbals. In the same key of E major, the closing section of ‘Jeux de vagues’ from La mer (1905) explores a similar timbral magic. Harmonics on harp and violins are juxtaposed with suspended cymbal while the final melodic fragment on flute and pianissimo glockenspiel evaporates into a resonating silence over the almost imperceptible tonic ‘E’ on double basses; the effect is of a vast and glistening seascape supremely calm.

The Indonesian gamelan, heard by Debussy and the young Ravel in 1889, offered a new approach to concepts of resonance and percussive texture. Using different pitch systems – equated in Western terms by the pentatonic scale – the gamelan also showed that density could be created through the horizontal layering of non-developmental repetitive fragments; a work could be generated organically through repetition and extension, an approach that was quite different from conventional Austro-German principles of harmonic tension and development. Harmony was thus liberated from its traditional form-generating role and became associated with colour. Debussy’s experience of the gamelan bore fruit in his piano piece ‘Pagodes’ from Estampes (1903) which, like ‘La Laideronnette, impératrice des pagodes’ from Ravel’s Ma mère l’Oye (1908–12) superimposes repetitive pentatonic melodic fragments on gong-like resonances. Ravel’s orchestration of ‘La Laideronnette’ enhances the inherent orientalism through its instrumental colouring; woodwind, celesta and xylophone are associated with melodic elements while strings, harp and horns create resonance. Although Debussy’s La mer does not inhabit an orientalist sound world, the work’s organic generative principles, particularly in ‘De l’aube à midi sur la mer’, derive from the gamelan, as do the layered blocks of repetitive rhythmic patterns in strings that create the movement’s drive and impulsion. The new compositional possibilities opened-up by the gamelan were rediscovered by Messiaen and Jolivet when they attended the Paris Exposition coloniale internationale in 1931.

The attraction to Russian composers was an extension of the French fascination for the orient. While from the French point of view Russians themselves were synonymous with the exotic East, the orientalism of works such as Balakirev’s Islamey (1869), Borodin’s In the Steppes of Central Asia (1880), Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade (1888) and Glazunov’s Oriental Rhapsody (1889) enhanced their appeal. Developing independently from the formulaic tendencies of Austro-German traditions, the Russians explored different approaches to form – often sectional – while their use of folk melodies, octatonic scales and glistening, as well as sometimes percussive, orchestration revealed a brilliance of sonority that opened new horizons for French composers who sought to break free from the pervasive influence of Wagner. The young Ravel was particularly smitten. While a student at the Paris Conservatoire he immersed himself in the music of The Five, his virtuosic approach to orchestration owing much to Russian influences. [7] In addition to his intimate knowledge of the scores, it is likely that Ravel knew Rimsky’s treatise Principles of Orchestration, which was translated into French by Ravel’s friend and fellow Apache Michel-Dimitri Calvocoressi. [8] In 1922, Ravel orchestrated Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (1874); the stark contrasts of the original piano writing are reflected in the angularity of the orchestration, the colouration of which adds a new structural dimension to the work. Notable effects in Ravel’s instrumental and percussive combinations include strident brass fanfares, solos for muted trumpet, bassoon and saxophone, and the inclusion of bells and tam-tam. The clamouring textures of the orchestra as whole are suggestive of Russian bells, as in the Coronation scene of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov (1869) – sound colours that can be traced forwards to Messiaen’s Turangalîla-symphonie (1946–48). 

The Arabic roots of Spanish music also connect with French orientalism, and are underlined in the Spanish-inspired works of Debussy and Ravel through the association of solo woodwind, particularly oboe and cor anglais, with haunting melodies featuring the characteristic augmented second interval. Examples occur at the opening of ‘Les parfums de la nuit’ from Debussy’s Ibéria and in the slow section of the ‘Malagueña’ from Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole – works that abound in timbral magic such as Ravel’s ethereal use of celesta in the opening ‘Prélude’. Both composers extend the orientalist sound texture to bassoon often writing in the instrument’s high register, which, with the narrower bore of French instruments of the period, had a particular nasal quality – a feature exploited by Stravinsky in the opening theme of The Rite of Spring (1913). Ravel also uses the bassoon to evoke jazzy timbres suggestive of the saxophone as in the sultry central section of Alborada del gracioso (orchestrated in 1918), which contrasts with the extrovert virtuosity of the outer sections where notoriously difficult rapid repeated-note figurations feature successively on trumpet, horn and flute. While jazzy effects abound in Ravel’s G major Piano Concerto, the first movement’s slow sections explore textural relationships between bassoon and horn, the latter in a perilously high register, these solos juxtaposing with magical harmonics and glissandos on harp. Incorporating no fewer than three saxophones, Ravel’s Boléro (1928) is a catalogue of orchestral effects. Restricted to four endlessly repeated musical elements – two melodies and two accompanimental ideas – the work focuses purely on the nuancing of instrumental colour, while the single long crescendo builds to a climactic apotheosis; a virtuoso achievement of orchestration. References to Spanish idioms in French music stimulated greater metric flexibility while allusion to specific dance forms expanded rhythmic vocabulary, not only enhancing the role of percussion but also developing the percussive role of other instruments, particularly strings.  

Evocations of nature have produced some of the most distinctively French orchestral soundscapes from Debussy’s Nocturnes (1899) and La mer to Ravel’s L’Enfant et les sortilèges (1925) and Messiaen’s Turangalîla-symphonie. While Nocturnes and La mer concern sky-, land- and seascapes, depicting nature free from human intervention as a phenomenon that just is, L’Enfant and Turangalîla present living entities within. Messiaen was far from the first composer to incorporate birdsong in his music, stylised evocations occurring in Couperin, Rameau and Vivaldi as well as in Beethoven and Schumann. But Ravel too was fascinated with the sounds of nature. The second scene of L’Enfant opens with an evocation of night music that is the essence of timbral magic – certainly one of the ‘enchantments’ of the opera; over a sequence of gently shimmering pianissimo chords played ponticello on strings, a slide-whistle suggests the hooting of an owl while a piccolo presents the song of a nightingale that follows the shape of actual birdsong almost as precisely as any in Messiaen. This is followed by an even more startling effect presaging later 20th-century vocal techniques; layers of repetitive rhythmic fragments are articulated with onomatopoeic phonemes to suggest the percussive textures of a chorus of frogs. 

In another mystical garden, that of Messiaen’s ‘Jardin du sommeil d’amour’ in Turangalîla, time also seems to stand still as the ondes Martenot and strings create a mood of ethereal calm in a seemingly endless melody counterpointed with birdsong on the piano and distant twittering in woodwind and percussion; omniscient, nature observes the sleeping lovers. Whatever the origins of their techniques, French composers have continued to explore new colours and textures to create their own magic of timbre. 

Further Reading