Now that is some beautiful and colorful harmony. Debussy is particularly known for his mastery of colorful orchestration, which is why he is often called an 'impressionistic' composer, though he hated the term applied to his music. I want to look a bit more closely at the piece, but don't worry, for my purposes we only need to look at a tiny bit of the beginning. Here is the first thing you hear:
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The piece is several minutes long, so a lot more goes on but to get an inkling, all we need to look at are these two tiny excerpts which really set the stage. The opening is B minor and the winds wander back and forth around that harmony. B minor is very clearly defined though, with the A sharp. Then the melody in the English horn which throws in that anomalous F natural. Not part of B minor! But after that, the melody descends to B again. There is also something anomalous in the opening: that B flat, which immediately returns as A sharp. Also in the opening two measures is the descent from the dominant to the tonic: you can easily see and hear F#, E, D, C#, B. That odd F natural in the English horn is accompanied by G and B. Together with the F natural that forms a dominant seventh chord of C major, which is the Neapolitan of B. The Neapolitan harmony, a favorite of composers for, oh, three hundred years or so, is a major chord on the second step of the scale, lowered a semitone. In B minor, it is a C major chord. In C major it would be a D flat major chord and so on. The only odd thing is that Debussy doesn't actually give us the Neapolitan, he just sets it up and then goes back to the tonic. He uses familiar harmonies, but in unfamiliar ways. The effect is that the harmony is also atmospheric and cloudy. "Nuages" means "clouds".
We find, behind the color of the orchestration, that Debussy's music is also functional harmony--but with a few twists.
What is functional harmony? I am tempted to say that all harmony is functional, but I'm not omniscient so I'm not completely sure. But whenever I dig into something with lots of color, like this piece, I find that what is holding it together underneath, is functional harmony. Functional harmony is tied to counterpoint, which makes me happy as a composer, because it gives me a way to think about structure. Let me explain: harmony is the succession of chords. But chords are different melodic strands put together. Harmony is the result of counterpoint. Even pieces that seem to have no melody whatsoever like my perennial example of this Bach C major prelude, are still different melodic lines which can be easily reconstructed:
Counterpoint is the bones of a piece, harmony the flesh and color--orchestration and so on--just the clothes. It is the clothing we see, but the clothing is nothing without the body underneath.
So the question is, is it possible to have music where the harmony is not based on counterpoint, but splashes of notes chosen purely for color? Is this piece more in that direction?
My feeling is that you can't write a very good piece without counterpoint holding your harmony together...