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The Influence of Asian Traditional Music

and Japanese Prints on Debussy's Music1)


Sun Hye Park

I. Introduction

Although Impressionistic music had already been set in place by


the preceding generation, it was firmly established by Claude
Debussy (1862-1918) as a new trend in the various musical styles
of twentieth century. Influenced by Symbolist poets and painters,
Debussy applied these Symbolists’ aspects in his music, which
focused on exploring writers’ psychological states rather than
emphasizing objective description or reaching for technical
perfection(Burge 1990: 4).
While Debussy did not consider himself as an Impressionist, he
is still widely known as the most representative composer of French
Impressionism. This is because his music had the strong
characteristic of evoking vivid images using musical devices that
could sound both vague and alien to the ears of contemporary
listeners of Debussy's time.

1) "This work was supported by Dong-eui University Foundation


Grant (2012)." "이 논문은 2012 학년도 동의대학교 연구년 지원에 의하
여 연구되었음."
210 음악과 문화 제30호

Debussy numerously referred to music of different styles and


evolved his own, but he was especially selectional when he tried on
new ways of composing. Debussy's main concern was not about
creating a style that deviated from the preexisting music. Rather, he
constantly sought to find ways to effectively express images and
emotions through different sounds, even if it had to be breaking
traditional rules of music. It is interesting to find that Debussy was
especially enthusiastic about Asian arts. His compositions changed
greatly after he met Asian traditional music such as Javanese
gamelan of Indonesia and the Indian music, rāga. It is also well
known that Debussy was so deeply into the Japanese prints that a
number of his compositions were inspired by them. Other than
historical and cultural reasons that made Asian arts original and
charming, Asian arts certainly appealed to Debussy since it well
suited Debussy's core musical intentions. Asian music had the
capability of making musical sound more animated and telling, while
the preexisting functional and tonal systems of Western music were
limited from expressing the innovative sound that Debussy wanted
to create. By applying what he had learned from Asian arts to his
compositions, Debussy was able to effectively carry out emotions
and images by his music.
Even though the influences of Asian arts and their association
with Debussy's music is often discussed in scholarly writings, a
comprehensive study of which aspects of Asian arts had a
captivating effect on Debussy has not been fully discussed.
This study will first discuss the influences of Symbolism on both
fields of painting and music. It will then examine which particular
aspects of Indonesian gamelan music and Indian rāga music