University of Vermont

College of Arts and Sciences

Department of Music and Dance

Debussy's Gamelan by Sylvia Parker


 by Sylvia Parker

Published in College Music Symposium ( March, 2013


The year 1889 marked the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution and the nation celebrated with the Paris Exposition Universelle, an extraordinary World's Fair. The importance of the event was emphasized by the construction of the Eiffel Tower, built for the occasion. Twenty-seven year old Claude Debussy frequented the many exhibits from all over the world and was enthralled by the gamelan music and the dancing it accompanied that he witnessed in the Javanese pavilion. The experience inspired him later to capture the sounds of the gamelan in his 1903 piano composition Pagodes. This article examines how he did so and also places Pagodes' composition within the contexts of contemporary documentation of the Exposition, his other works, and recent scholarship about exoticism. Four principal elements of gamelan music—timbre, tuning, polyphonic layering, and rhythmic structure—are examined through the eyes of twentieth century ethnomusicologists. The same four elements are analyzed in Pagodes. Elements of Western musical composition complement the analysis. What emerges is not a vague impression but, rather, a remarkably successful rendition of the Eastern gamelan on the Western piano.

Last modified March 14 2013 11:22 AM

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