Debussy’s Quartet in G Minor, Op. 10 and the Transformation of the String Quartet under French Impressionism


“I love music passionately. And because I love it I try to free it from barren traditions that stifle it.”  –Claude Debussy

French impressionism, originating in Paris in the late 1800s, employed themes of light, movement, and human perception that changed artistic views of modern life.  Within this movement, there was a change in focus from historical tradition and structure to rather modernity and the individual human experience. Claude Debussy’s String Quartet in G minor, Op. 10 presents Impressionist ideology as a transition from the classic approaches to form, melody, and harmony into the later tendencies of Twentieth Century music. Through a comparison of Debussy’s quartet to the first movements of two other string quartets, one outlining the traditional Classical era by Joseph Haydn, and another featuring post-modern harmonies and other innovations by Bela Bartok, this analysis explores the necessity of Impressionism as a bridge in Western music, transitioning composers’ emphasis on stylized tradition to later ideologies surrounding Twentieth Century music.  Following a score analysis of each, as a well as set of  recordings and and an interview with the performers of the excerpts, this project seeks to identify the characteristics attributed to each composer and their associated musical time-period, focusing mainly on Debussy and Impressionism.  It is this analyst’s intent to better understand the influence of French Impressionism as developing the string quartet genre in the Western musical canon.


Amidst the outpour of art and music that surrounds the late 1800s leading in to the Twentieth century, French Impressionism arose as an expression of modern life.  Straying away from the focus on the personal, individual, emotional, and natural as seen in the Romantic era, impressionism instead sought symbolism and pleasure in the moment.[1]   The new focus was on modernity, that of a fast-paced urban Paris along with leisure and pleasure in direct rejection of the rigid, learned techniques and traditions that were previously seen in art history. While ideologically, this movement paralleled the technological and social urbanization of the time, it was met originally with much apprehension.  Its original founders, the Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, Printmakers, etc., formed with the intent to reject the center of French art at the time and therefore faced much critique from formal society, especially the Academie des Beaux-Arts.  An exhibition by the Anonymous Society posed in 1874 and led by Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, and Camille Pisarro, sought independence from the typical Salon in French Society, by presenting these modern ideas through art. Under this influence, their art featured light brush strokes, bright unblended colors, and the emphasis of light.  Their ultimate intention was to create movement in art and to highlight the individuality of the experience and perception of each viewer.


In tandem, Impressionism in the Nineteenth century soon instilled this focus on individual perceptions and modern ideas in Western music. Composers began to stray from the Classical and Romantic traditions, developing techniques and philosophies that would later lead to new innovations throughout the Twentieth Century.  The search of this “pleasure in the moment” ideology and focus on color and light was applied aurally, through musical works such as by Claude Debussy.  His compositional style places focus on the “supremacy of musical color over form and design.”[2] and therefore, was met with much disdain for his rejection of historical conventions in music. His works feature never before seen approaches to modality, tonality, scalar motion, implementation of exoticism, and most importantly, nonfunctional harmonies as important solely for their “sonorous value” rather than as a proper function in traditional music theory.[3] Although little formal acclaim to the Impressionists and their movement, Debussy was first identified in a pejorative critique by the Academie who disapproved this abandonment of established theory.[4] Eventually however, as public opinion grew to acceptance and the term impressionism was applied favorably, Debussy soon came to be known as the quintessential impressionist composer.


Earlier Classical/Romantic traditions developed well-established traditions and rules that composers such as Debussy and successors would later choose to deconstruct and build upon.  While innovative and shocking in its own right, music composed by the “Father of the Symphony and String Quartet,” Joseph Haydn, was the first in the to regularly compose for four voices: two violins, viola, and cello.  These pieces were meant for small settings, focusing on enjoyment of the performers while playing.[5]  Haydn’s quartets, with their clear form, pleasing style, and unique compositional inventions, set the composer as the paramount figure in the establishment and formation of the Classical string quartet genre.

Composed in four movements, Haydn’s String Quartet in C Major, Op. 76 No. 3, nicknamed the “Emperor” and composed at the end of the Eighteenth Century, cleanly outlines style characteristics and form that were typical of the genre during the Classical Period.[6]  The first movement of this quartet is in clear sonata form.  Leading the listener through a progression of main themes, variation, and a return, in addition to the harmonic focus of tonic-dominant relationships, sonata form was found easily accessible and aurally pleasing to its audience.  The melodic material is presented in galant style, an expression shown in classical music by free homophony, tuneful melodies in the higher registers, and short gestures in even two, three,or four bar phrases.  The opening theme of the exposition in the “Emperor” exemplifies these characteristics, especially beginning in mm. 7 with the dotted rhythmic melody in the first violin over a light accompaniment in the other three voices (See Figure 1).

Figure 1. Galant style melody in first violin, with light accompaniment in the other three voices.
Figure 1. Galant style melody in first violin, with light accompaniment in the other three voices.

As a part of this style, frequent tonal cadences featuring a predominant-dominant-tonic function are emphasized in the bass through a light accompaniment as well (See Figure 2).

Figure 2. Embedded Phrase Model in Theme 1 presenting the functional IV-V-I chord progression in tonic.
Figure 2. Embedded Phrase Model in Theme 1 presenting the functional IV-V-I chord progression in tonic.

As an essential contributor to the classical music tradition, Haydn and his works such as this string quartet embody these most important traditions of form, melody, and harmony in the historical cannon.


While clearly and precisely following sonata form typical of classical style, this quartet does have a few novelties of its own.  In the exposition, a short theme in E-flat major (the flat three chord of the tonic C major) appears near the end of the secondary theme before a half cadence in D major in the new dominant key (See Figure 3).

Figure 3. New sub-theme in E-flat Major, the flat three chord of the tonic.
Figure 3. New sub-theme in E-flat Major, the flat three chord of the tonic.

This section is unusual because of its modal mixture, a concept commonly seen later Romantic compositions such as by Beethoven and even later works such as by Debussy.  Additionally, the development features a lively, folk-like variation of the opening theme.  A pedal in fifths in the cello, with a light dotted melody in the first violin follows galant principles, but with an unique design that sets this section apart from the rest of the movement, adding interest for the musicians performing as well as listeners (See Figure 4).

Figure 4. Folk-like variation of opening with pedal E/B fifths in cello line.
Figure 4. Folk-like variation of opening with pedal E/B fifths in cello line.













Other slight variations of regular form are presented throughout for elements of humor and wit, a method typical of  Haydn.  As a whole however, this movement clearly defines the structural components that make up the classical string quartet genre and its associated style.


Almost a hundred years later, in 1873, Claude Debussy composed his first and only string quartet.[7] During this time between Haydn and Debussy’s works, the influence of Romantic composers such as Beethoven and Brahms had greatly changed the compositional approach and musical purpose of the string quartet genre.  Due to his own theory of music, Debussy created a quartet that, while reminiscent of the outline first prescribed by Haydn, opened new doors for the genre.[8] The first movement of this piece, similar to Haydn’s quartet, is clearly in sonata form.  This time, however, the structure is much more cyclic, following a progression and development of the opening and secondary themes not only throughout the first movement, but the work as a whole. The opening melody, utilizing the phygrian mode with G as the final, features an arabesque triplet rhythm in the first violin leading to the downbeat of the next measure (See Figure 5).

Opening melody in G Phygian mode, featuring an arabesque-like triplet rhythm that leads to the following downbeat in the first violin.
Opening melody in G Phygian mode, featuring an arabesque-like triplet rhythm that leads to the following downbeat in the first violin.

With these opening bars, the traditional galant style used by Haydn are completely abolished and reformed.  The opening is far more abrasive than the tuneful melodies and light accompaniment of Haydn, with all four voices playing a forte unison that comprises of a greater number of accidentals and more harmonic complexity than Haydn’s music.  Commonplace tonal progressions (such as the typical IV-V-I progression seen at the cadence in Figure 2) are substituted with new scales and nonfunctional harmonies.  Through these adaptations, Debussy’s writing focuses more on the exotic and aurally pleasing, rather than the cleanly formulated structures of the classical style.


The second  theme in the Debussy, a slow, floating melody that begins in the first violin, is accompanied by rapid, chromatic sixteenth notes for an atmospheric quality typical of Impressionist music (See Figure 6).

Figure 6. Chromatic sixteenth notes accompanying an ethereal melody that is passed from violin one to cello.
Figure 6. Chromatic sixteenth notes accompanying an ethereal melody that is passed from violin one to cello.

Here, the focus on movement and blurred lines are apparent through the floating accompaniment and expressive melody that is passed between the first violin and cello.  The sixteenth notes also present relentless chromaticism  that will be amplified through Bartok’s string quartet as music headed toward more atonal and set-theory based compositions.  The breakdown of part-writing rules and functional theory is presented in Debussy’s music and further expanded in later compositions of the Twentieth Century.


Following, the first movement of Bartok’s Fourth String Quartet, written in 1928, is also outlined in sonata form, as with the two prior compositions.[9]  Here though, some discrepancy lies in this identification.  The more ambiguous tonal center and lack of key signature eliminates any sense of a tonic-dominant relationship that was originally essential to the tradition of sonata form and structure.  What typifies this piece as sonata form is the clear presentation of contrasting primary and secondary themes, their development, and a recapitulation and extended coda at the end.  The themes themselves are revealed and developed throughout as an idea labeled “germ-motifs”for their unfolding process (See Figure 7).[10]  

Figure 7. Germ-motif beginning in cello and expanded and extracted throughout the development.
Figure 7. Germ-motif beginning in cello and expanded and extracted throughout the development.

This development is not unlike the cyclic development of Debussy’s themes in his sonata form first movement, a feature far different from Haydn’s original presentation of themes.  Moreover, Bartok’s writing features alternative scales such as octatonic and pentatonic, and chromatic sixteenth notes as in the Debussy quartet (See Figure 8).

Figure 8. Sixteenth notes in octatonic scales, reminiscent of harmonies and rhythmic patterns utilized by Debussy.
Figure 8. Sixteenth notes in octatonic scales, reminiscent of harmonies and rhythmic patterns utilized by Debussy.

In addition to the nonfunctional melodic and harmonic technique, Bartok also includes narrower intervals, set-theory, atonality, and the expansion of instrumental potentials as a progression of Debussy’s innovations in his string quartet.  His use of folk-tunes, similar to what is seen in Haydn’s quartet, but adapted into these new harmonic mediums, also emphasizes the transition of styles from Classical on through to Impressionist and later Twentieth Century music.


French Impressionism and its influence on Debussy changed many of Western music’s established norms, especially when studied by musicians and performers today.  Throughout this analysis, the provided musical excerpts outline just a few of the many examples in form, melody, and harmony that have continued to expand and develop in the string quartet genre.  To further emphasize these relationships, this analyst asked a volunteer string quartet to play one of the excerpts from each  of the three composer’s quartets, totaling three excerpts.[11]   After playing, the performers were asked a series of questions that focused on the correlations between the different composers and their musical time periods, as well as how each compositional approach provided different challenges in performance.  As a result, much of the interviewed claims supported evidence of the score analysis: Haydn’s quartet was viewed as “articulate” and “clean,” the Debussy quartet posed unique challenges with more complex rhythms, harmony, and a “sweeping style,” and the Bartok was said to be “bizarre”, “savage”, reminiscent of folk dances, and ultimately, “nebulous” and “ hard to latch onto.”  To these performers, each excerpt by a different composer required a “mental switch” that changed not only the techniques by which one interpreted the piece, but also the physical aspects of playing, such as posture and weight of the bow on the strings. Unanimously, it was agreed that the Debussy quartet held almost an intermediary stance between the Haydn and Bartok; One member stated that, in terms of harmony, the  Debussy was “still kind of holding on, but breaking away from the norms of Haydn.”  This emphasis on Debussy’s quartet as beginning to break away from the Classical mold supports the findings of the score analysis and excerpt examples.  Debussy’s approach to the string quartet genre helped develop new innovations that were continued by Bartok and others into the Twentieth Century.  Addressing French Impressionism, the output of Debussy as a transitional figure in the Western musical canon is highly indebted to much of the ideologies of the artistic movement. It is important to note, however, that while the influence of French Impressionism and Debussy were vital to the transition of the string quartet into its later structures, the Western historical cannon works as development in itself; Debussy’s advancement of the cannon would not be possible without the works of Haydn, nor any other composer who stretched limits of form, melody, and harmony throughout the rest of the Classical and Romantic eras.  Just as well, successors such as Bartok would not have the same interpretation of the string quartet genre without Debussy’s innovation and ingenuity. Altogether, French Impressionism plays an essential role in the transition of the string quartet from Classical to Twentieth Century, as shown by Debussy’s String Quartet in G minor, No. 1.

Supplementary Materials:

  • For performance recordings and performers’ insights, please follow the link below.




Bartok, Bela, String Quartet No. 4. (New York: Boosey and Hawks, 1946).

Debussy, Claude, String Quartet in G minor, Op. 10. (Composer’s manuscript with annotations, 1893). Bibliothèque du Conservatoire de Musique Paris.

Haydn, Joseph, String Quartet in C Major No. 3, Op. 76. (Urtext, 1977).

Jarocinski, Stephan, Debussy: Impressionism and Symbolism. (London: Eulenburg Books, 1976), 11-13.

Parks, Richard S, The Music of Claude Debussy,  (trans. Rollo H. Myers. New York: Yale University Press, 1989), 72.

Samu, Margaret, “Impressionism: Art and Modernity.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Last modified October, 2004.  Accessed April 22, 2014.

[1] Samu, Margaret, “Impressionism: Art and Modernity.”–Source used throughout remainder of this paragraph and analysis for basic information of French Impressionist history.

[2] Jarocinski, Stephan, Debussy: Impressionism and Symbolism, 11.

[3] Parks, Richard, The Music of Claude Debussy, 72.

[4] Jarocinski, Debussy: Impressionism and Symbolism, 12-13.

[5] Lecture Notes: Prof. Gerald Hoekstra, Music History 241,  Fall 2013.

[6] Urtext Score, Haydn.

[7] Composer’s Manuscript, Debussy.

[8]  Parks, Richard, The Music of Claude Debussy, 72.

[9] Boosey & Hawks, The String Quartets of Bela Bartok.

[10] Bartok score introductory notes, Boosey & Hawks.

[11] A token of gratitude to those involved in the performance recordings and above insights.