“Fleeting” #4: Cloches à travers les feuilles

Welcome back to my site. The piece that will open the program is Cloches à travers les feuilles (Bells through the leaves), from Images, 2e série, composed by Claude Debussy (1862-1918). (Please visit here to see the entire program.)

Claude Debussy, I. Cloches à travers les feuilles, Images, 2esérie (1907)

The fleeting qualities described in my previous post are also evident in Cloches à travers les feuilles. Debussy signed a contract with the publisher Durand in 1903 to publish twelve Images, six for solo piano and six for two pianos, which eventually resulted in six images for solo piano, published as Images, 1re série, and Images, 2e série, in addition to Images pour orchestre.[1]As the title of the work Images suggests, Debussy offers music that allows listeners to experience images through sounds. Cloches à travers les feuilles, which is translated as “Bells through the leaves”, is a fascinating title as it blurs the boundary between the sound world and the visual world; we often associate flickering light with something seen through leaves, but Debussy wants us to picture bells sounding through leaves. Debussy’s intention to create this ambiguity manifests in one of his instructions “comme une buée irisée” (like an iridescent mist). 

The following description of the piece by the French pianist Alfred Cortot (1877-1962) beautifully captures the mood:       

“[Cloches à travers les feuilles] paints a tone picture of hardly stirring boughs lulled in a sweet silence, a tranquil green shade touched but not disturbed by far-off vibrations sustained, quivering, by the pedals.”[2]

There are two possible events that inspired the composer to write this piece. As the source of the title, the publisher Durand cites Louis Laloy’s description of the tradition of tolling the bells on All Saints’ Day, “sounding across the darkening forests in the evening silence” in the Jura region of France.[3]Meanwhile Paul Roberts, the author of Images: The Piano Music of Claude Debussy, suggests Debussy’s experience of hearing the Javanese gamelan at the Paris Universal Exposition in 1889 as another possible source of inspiration for the piece because of the similar function of the gamelan’s slendro scale and the whole-tone scale as both scales destroy “the hierarchy that is fundamental to a western scale and that governs the harmonic structure of all western tonal music.”[4]

Since Debussy did not explicitly mention the gamelan as the source of inspiration, it is impossible to tell if the use of the whole-tone scale is in fact connected to the gamelan, but the whole-tone scale certainly plays an important role in producing the fleeting sound in this piece. As pointed out by Roberts, unlike the scales used in the traditional tonal music, the whole-tone scale dismisses the usual hierarchy because it never ends due to the absence of semitones. As such, what we hear in the first eight measures, constructed entirely on the whole-tone scale (four layers of a whole-tone scale), is the hazy atmosphere. 

Subsequently, Debussy takes us to different places harmonically to change the mood: the Lydian mode on E, the pentatonic scale on B-flat, and the beginning ambiguity built on the whole-tone scale again. Despite the obvious presence of the bells in the middle, what remains with the listener at the end is the intensified fleetingness of the sound.

If you are interested in reading the full program notes with more detailed analyses, you can access them here:

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[1]Roy Howat, “Foreword,” in Claude Debussy: Images, 2e série, (Paris: Éditions Durand, 2005).

[2]Alfred Cortot, French Piano Music, trans. Hilda Andrews (New York: Da Capo, 1977), 16; quoted in Catherine Kautsky, Debussy’s Paris: Piano Portraits of the Belle Époque (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2017), 77 and 79. 

[3]Howat, “Foreword,” in Claude Debussy: Images, 2e série.

[4]Paul Roberts, Images: The Piano Music of Claude Debussy (Portland: Amadeus Press, 1996), 167.

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