Inconstant tonality in Debussy's La mer
Marcus, David Jonathan
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This study is an original harmonic and tonal analysis of Debussy’s orchestral masterpiece La mer: trois esquisses symphoniques. Based on Debussy’s praise of freedom and critique of “overprecise forms,” the author undertakes to explain harmony and tonicity in the music afresh, thoroughly adjusting traditional concepts of tonality. He shows that Debussy’s harmonic originality lies close to the musical surface, and analytical reductions, particularly to familiar tonal objects, tend to conceal its harmonic methods.These methods include the use of whole-step/half-step scales as harmonic regions, the use of maximally intersecting scales for smooth modulation, and the use of invariant pitch classes as organizing agents over long spans of musical time. The auther then replaces the old concept of harmonic function, conceived as a consistent hierarchy centered on tonic and dominant, with a constantly evolving presentation of tonicity. The final portion of the study considers the metaphorical fit of all these techniques for La mer’s oceanic imagery.