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FastNotes

  • It was perhaps the premiere of César Franck’s String Quartet in 1890 that encouraged Debussy to venture into the realm of chamber music. He created an audaciously ultra-modern quartet with startlingly beautiful effects in lieu of sheer shock tactics.
  • For the quartet, Debussy utilized the “cyclical” method advocated by Franz Liszt – a method characterized by the recurrence of certain themes or motifs throughout a work – combined with a light-handed variation technique that carried his motto theme through subtle ongoing transformations.

  • The piece made its debut on December 29, 1893 at the Salle Pleyel in Paris with the prestigious Ysaÿe Quartet, to whom the work is dedicated.


The 1890s rank among the most productive years of Debussy’s life. From this decade date the Suite Bergamasque for piano (home of the ever-popular Clair de Lune), the seductive orchestral Nocturnes, most of his work on the opera Pelléas et Mélisande, and the only string quartet he ever wrote. Debussy was 31 when the Quartet in G Minor appeared in 1893, a truly personal and original statement. His distinctive musical language would appear fully formed the following year with his quietly revolutionary Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.

It was perhaps the premiere of César Franck’s String Quartet in 1890 that encouraged Debussy to venture into the realm of chamber music. With an uncanny ear for attractive melodies and harmonies, he created an audaciously ultra-modern quartet with startlingly beautiful effects in lieu of sheer shock tactics. His fresh slant on musical architecture utilized the “cyclical” method advocated by Franz Liszt, and carried on by Franck and his disciples, a method characterized by the recurrence of certain themes or motifs throughout a work. Debussy combined this cyclical idea with a light-handed variation technique that carried his motto theme through subtle ongoing transformations — an approach that replaced the traditional contrast and development techniques, which had formed the crux of the Austro-Germanic thinking that had dominated European music since Haydn’s time.

The vigorous motto theme from which Debussy fashions the entire Quartet appears at the outset, cast in Phrygian mode. The lyrical second theme turns out to be a close relative to the principal theme itself. Then, a mosaic of miniature variations, based primarily on the second subject, replaces a true development section, while the recapitulation delivers further variations cloaked in a rich texture of shifting harmonies. 

Repetitious phrases lend a flavor of precocious minimalism to the beginning of the sonically stunning scherzo movement. A dusky viola solo intones the motto theme, recast now in rhythm, mode, and tempo. The backdrop for this rhythmic whirlwind runs the gamut from pin-prickly pizzicatos to shimmering trills. In a brief central episode, the first violin offers a more lyrical view of the theme.

The motto theme appears most drastically altered in the contemplative Andantino, which features muted soliloquies by viola and cello, an exotically distant key signature of D-flat major, and a decadently sensuous climax with hints of Pelléas et Mélisande, on which Debussy was concurrently working.

Then, a pensive preamble reflects on various metamorphoses of the germinal theme before plunging into the mainstream of the finale. During the movement, Debussy makes concessions to tradition as the motto theme appears in inversion, imitation, and the slightest hint of fugato. The work concludes with a potent sample of the powerful, colorful string writing that sparked contemporary complaints that this vital quartet was “too orchestral.”

The piece made its debut on December 29, 1893 at the Salle Pleyel in Paris with the prestigious Ysaÿe Quartet, to whom the work is dedicated.  — Kathy Henkel