Claude Debussy: Refracting His Music through Art

Edgar Degas (French, 1834–1917)
Dancers in Pink, c. 1886
Pastel on paper, mounted on cardboard
The Norton Simon Foundation, F.1969.05.1.P

Early in his career, Debussy often liked to use words and phrases borrowed from the visual arts to describe his music. One of his favorites was the word “arabesque.” It’s a word with a complicated origin—a French term derived from the Italian arabesco, meaning “in the Arabic style,” used to describe decorative surfaces with scrolling and interlacing lines as seen in Islamic visual art.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the term was used to describe configurations of dancers that suggested the visual effect of the arabesque, eventually morphing to describe poses that were imbalanced until it arrived at the modern meaning in ballet: a body position where the dancer balances on one leg and extends the other.

In music, the arabesque comes across in ornamental, free flowing and circular melodies. This piece for solo piano, the first movement of Deux Arabesques by Claude Debussy, features cascading, circling melodic and harmonic lines that are suggestive of the sinuous, undulating lines of a visual arabesque. The motion seems constant, but it is not without its moments of pause and pose—much like the movement of a dancer.