Bach, Chopin, and Debussy: A Comparison

J.S. Bach: Prelude and Fugue in C Major from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1. Gustav Leonhardt (harpsichord)

Chopin: Nocturne in E-flat Major, Op. 9 #2. Vladimir Ashkenazy.

Debussy: L’isle joyeuse. Zoltan Kocsis (piano)

This paper attempts to compare the three pieces listed above in more detail. They are from three different time periods, spanning over 300 years, and represent different instrumentation, styles, and ways of thinking about music in general. By exploring these differences, one can better understand how music evolves over time with societal changes in public interest, among other influences.

The earliest of these, the Baroque period, is often characterized as being elaborate and dissonant. Many preludes and fugues used polyphony, expressing multiple different lines of musical thought at the same time. Bach’s piece does just this. The entire piece is contrapuntal, with the performer playing melodies on the high and low ends of the note scale. Both parts of the piece sound quite elaborate in their construction, partly due to being played on a harpsichord. The Prelude is played at a comfortable walking pace, and seems to be expressing a warm-hearted emotion. It seems repetitive, but enough paths are explored to keep it interesting. The range of notes, complexity, and pace increase for the Fugue, which seems to express a joyous or victorious emotion.

During the Romantic period, in which Chopin’s piece was written, composers were much freer to simply write pleasing music that they enjoyed, as opposed to grinding out pieces for an employer. They were able to capture in musical form the intricate details of a wide range of emotions. Many different musical forms were constructed and new routes taken during this period. Chopin’s piece, one of my favorites, seems much more pleasing to the ear than Bach’s piece, probably because of the difference in instrumentation. The constant volume and larger intervals between notes seen on a harpsichord leave much more to be desired, although Bach does a wonderful job with what he has. The piano allows for much greater variation and range. Chopin uses this masterfully in his piece, expressing emotion through the harshness of chords and volume of the notes.

The Modern period that followed, from which came Debussy’s piece, saw an even larger variety of paths explored in creative expression. Rhythms were mixed and skewed. Many celebrated pieces from this period contained little or no melody, and were thick with dissonance. Debussy’s piece, L’isle joyeuse, is a good example of this. It can definitely be considered unconventional, and completely unlike the other two pieces, testing commonly-held musical traditions that the other two pieces were in part built on. Instead of focusing on melody and rhythm like music in previous periods, Debussy explores musical textures and colors, while playing in nontraditional scales. The music seems to flow from the piano like water, weaving together the separate ideas into one coherent form. The tempo is quite rapid, and the volume changes continuously. There doesn’t seem to be any rhythm or melody, but there is a buildup in emotion to a climax that is quickly cut off at the end of the piece. It takes many unexpected turns, much unlike the other two pieces, which seem more “logical” and continuous in their forms. Also unlike the other two pieces, this one seems almost improvised at times. Bach’s piece definitely exhibits structure, as does Chopin’s in some ways. Sharp, contrasting single notes or very short phrases are common in Debussy’s piece. These features are not seen at all in the other two pieces.

Overall, one can definitely see an evolution in musical form when comparing these three pieces. Bach’s piece was very structured and developed harmony. Chopin was freer to express emotion and created a very pleasing piece with less structure and more innovation. Debussy threw out melody, structure, and rhythm in favor of expressing colorful art in the form of music.

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