Claude Debussy: Refracting His Music through Art

Edgar Degas (French, 1834–1917)
Women Ironing, Begun c. 1875–1876; reworked c. 1882–1886
Oil on canvas
The Norton Simon Foundation, M.1971.3.P/M.1979.17.P

Debussy only wrote one string quartet, and it was his only work to clearly bear several rather conventional features. First, an opus number and key designation in the title: String Quartet in G Minor, Opus 10. Second, the piece comprises four movements that follow the traditional structure: a sonata form movement, a scherzo, a slow movement and a finale. Despite the seemingly conventional setting, the music is strikingly idiosyncratic.

The first movement has only a tempo indication, “Animé et très décidé”—animated and very determined. It features a recurring musical motto introduced at the beginning. This motto evokes a feeling of vitality and determination, constantly returning in a cyclical fashion. But the texture and color are as important as the motto itself. As in an Impressionist painting, the quartet shifts light and emotional nuance at each passing moment, its mood is mercurial and elusive.