Thesis and antithesis: Resolving the dialectique in the first movement of Debussy’s Violin Sonata

Słowa kluczowe

Violin Sonata
sonata form
Golden Section

Jak cytować

Evans, T. (2018). Thesis and antithesis: Resolving the dialectique in the first movement of Debussy’s Violin Sonata. Interdisciplinary Studies in Musicology, (14), 84–99.


This article will offer a close reading of the first movement of Debussy’s Violin Sonata (1917), and will set forth to discuss its formal principles within a dialectical context. References to Hegelian philosophy will be made, and also to precursory dialectical structures. The work will also be studied in relation to sonata form, and by taking Mark DeVoto’s claim that this late work displays a “persuasive sonata form” structure into consideration, this analysis will in fact elucidate Debussy’s ostensible departure from archetypical sonata form. Examining Debussy’s correspondences and sketches will posit the Sonata initially within existing scholarship - both historiographical and analytical — paying particular attention to the composer’s “late” style in general. A discussion on the relationship between dialectic and symbolist aesthetics will then be necessary in order to promote the idea that the work is structured around a dialectical framework. The second section of this article will carry out an in-depth analysis of the movement, adopting and adapting a semiotic approach as developed by Nicolas Ruwet and Jean-Jacques Nattiez’s distributional methodology in order to study the work’s formal attributes and motivic construction. Use of this approach will bring to light the strong bond between the motivic thesis and antithesis in the first section of the Sonata, and also the conflation of material in the final section of the movement, which aims towards a dialectical resolution. Use of paradigmatic diagrams will illuminate the methods in which synthesis is achieved by different compositional strategies, including merging, completion, compression, combination and conjunction. Furthermore, the analysis will draw attention to Golden Section proportions in the middle section of the piece. In conclusion, it will be argued that Debussy’s conscious effort to avoid Teutonic principles has paradoxically brought his work closer to Germanic thinking. Amid a time of personal and social conflict, one could ultimately compare his approach to that of the Hegelian “free spirit” — a free spirit that transcends political boundaries by its occupation of a neutral ground. Whether or not this demonstrated Debussy’s conscious compositional intention to reflect Hegel’s philosophical principles remains unsolved. More certain, however, is the fact that the presentation of a thesis and a subsequent antithetical section clearly leads to a resolution of the dialectique in the first movement of this Sonata.


Baker, James M. “Post-Tonal Voice Leading.” In Early Twentieth-Century Music. Edited by Jonathan Dunsby, 20-41.Oxford: Blackwell, 1993.

Biddle, Ian. “Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich.” In Grove Music Online <> (Accessed 21 March 2006).

DeVoto, Mark. Debussy and the Veil of Tonality: Essays on his Music. Hilsdale: Pendragon Press, 2004.

Dietschy, Marcel. A Portrait o f Claude Debussy. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990. Fulcher, Jane F. “Speaking the Truth to Power: The Dialogic Element in Debussy’s Wartime Compositions.” In Debussy and his World. Edited by Jane F. Fulcher, 203-232. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2001.

Greenbaum, Matthew. “Debussy, Wolpe and Dialectical Form.” Contemporary Music Review, no. 27/ii (2008): 343-59.

Hegel, Georg W. F. Natural Law: the Scientific Ways o f Treating Natural Law, its Place in Moral Philosophy, and its Relation to the Positive Science o f Law. translated by T.M. Knox. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1975.

Hegel, Georg W. F. Elements o f the Philosophy o f Right. Edited by Allen W. Wood. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Hepokoski, James A. “Formulaic Openings in Debussy.” 19th Century Music, no. VUI/i, (1984): 44-59.

Howat, Roy. Debussy in Proportion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Jarociński, Stefan. Debussy: Impressionism and Symbolism. Translated by Rollo Myers. London: Eulenberg Books, 1976.

Kelly, Michael. “Hegel in France to 1940: A Bibliographical Essay.” Journal of European Studies, no. ll/i, (1981): 29-52.

Kelly, Michael. Hegel in France. Birmingham: University of Birmingham, 1992. Lesure, François, ed. Debussy: selected letters. Translated by Roger Nichols. London: Faber, 1987.

Lewin, David. “Some Instances of Parallel Voice Leading in Debussy.” 19th Century Music, no. ll/i, (1987): 59-72.

Leydon, Rebecca. Narrative Strategies and Debussy’s Late Style. PhD dissertation. McGill University, 1996.

Leydon, Rebecca. “Debussy’s Late Style and the Devices of Early Silent Cinema.” Music Theory Spectrum, no. 23 (2001): 217-41.

Mccombie, Elizabeth. Mallarmé and Debussy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Nattiez, Jean-Jacques. “Varese’s “Density 21.5”: A Study in Semiological Analysis.” Translated by Anna Barry, Music Analysis, no. 1/iii (1982): 244-340.

Nattiez, Jean-Jacques. Music and Discourse: Toward a Semiology of Music. Translated by Carolyn Abbate. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1990.

Paddison, Max. Adorno’s Aesthetics o f Music. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Parks, Richard S. The Music o f Claude Debussy. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989.

Parks, Richard S. “Structure and Performance: Metric and Phrase Ambiguities in the Three Chamber Sonatas.” In Debussy in Performance. Edited by James R. Briscoe, 193-224. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.

Pomeroy, Boyd. “Debussy’s Tonality: a Formal Perspective.” In The Cambridge Companion to Debussy. Edited by Simon Trezise, 155-78. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Prunières, Henry. “Musical Symbolism.” Musical Quarterly, no. 19/i (1933): 18-28.

Rauss, Denis-François. “Ce Terrible Finale.” Cahiers Debussy, no. 2 (1978): 30-62.

Ruwet, Nicolas. “Methods of Analysis in Musicology.” Music Analysis, no. 6/i-ii (1987): 20-23.

Schmalfeldt, Janet. “Form as the Process of Becoming: The Beethoven-Hegelian Tradition and the “Tempest” Sonata.” In Beethoven Forum, vol. 4. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995, 37-71.

Somer, Avo. “Musical Syntax in the Sonatas of Debussy: Phrase Structure and Formal Function.” Music Theory Spectrum, no. 27/i (2005): 67-95.

Wheeldon, Marianne. “Debussy and La Sonata cyclique.” Journal of Musicology, no. 22/iv (2005): 644-79.