String Quartet in G minor (Debussy)

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String Quartet in G Minor (Op. 10) is French composer Claude Achille Debussy's only composition in the string quartet medium. It was composed in 1893 is comprised of four movements. The work was apparently inspired by César Franck as is evidence in his use of cyclic form; all four movements being connected by common thematic material. The work premiered on December 29, 1893 by the Ysaÿe Quartet to mixed reactions; with some praising the work as a "breath of fresh air" and Debussy's use of cyclic form while others criticized it for being too far removed from the French Romantic tradition.


  • 1. Animé et très décidé
  • 2. Assez vif et bien rythmé
  • 3. Andantino, doucement expressif
  • 4. Très modéré - En animant peu à peu - Très mouvementé et avec passion


Composerorganist - Harmonic/melodic/rhythmic highlights Movement 1 - mm 1 - 12

The first thing that strikes me in first twelve measures of movement 1 is the harmonic ambiguity by the suggestion of two tonalities: G minor and the Phrygian mode starting with the first measure. By flatting the 2nd degree scale (A) and for most of the 12 measures flattening the 7th degree (F#) of G minor we get G Phrygian. Note in measures 2 - 4 we have an F#-F wherein Debussy uses the F# as an appoggiatura. This serves too to diminish the strength of the leading tone's usual pull to the tonic.

Harmonically I find the replacement of the V with the half diminished V a great way to reinforce the harmonic ambiguity yet maintain a shadow of the dominant 7 - i relationship. How? The tritone emphasis is now on d- a flat versus the traditional c-F#. Therefore there is a reference to Ionian E flat scale from which the third degree of that scale begets G Phrygian! The dominant role of the half diminished chord becomes very obvious at mm 13 when the 2 violins, viola have the d-c-a flat of the chord while the cello has the third of the chord which is then taken by the viola. Debussy here follows old (very good) voice leading practices by having the f move stepwise to a thereby changing the d-f-a flat-c TO d-f#-a-d. This creates smooth voice leading to the next theme.

Rhythmically, Debussy picks up from Dvorak and the recent influx of new folk music from the Americas and Far East. The strong beats are 2nd and 4th quarter and he extends this to even with in the half note with the dotted eighth-quarter slurred to eighth note which places the emphasis on the 2nd anfd 4th eighths and least emphasis on the 1st and third eighths. Even the harmonic rhythm follows this pattern - see the opening measure where the half-diminished V gets emphasized through this syncopation. Note there is one exception to this - mm 7 - 9 the emphasis falls temporarily on beat three and the 4/4 divided - 2.5 beats+1.5 beats. In this instance it serves as a variation on a hemiola. Debussy does not rigidly adhere to this but rather uses various devices to reinforce the strong beat on 2 and 4; later on in mm 14 we see Debussy use this syncopation effectively to give the impression of a melody floating the running sixteenths that emphasize the first beat.

Melodically he again looks to Dvorak as the main melody is entirely pentatonic. Measures 1-5 the first violin's melody is based on D-F-G-Aflat-Bflat. note how Debussy ties it into the half diminished V and i. The adherence to the harmonic is something you'd see say from Teleman or early Mozart! He only breaks with these tones in mm 6 - 7 by transposing them to b-d-eflat-f.