Musical influences on the young Debussy were many; Beethoven, Schumann, Chopin, and he fell under the spell of Wagner for a short time. But Debussy was an original from the start. He took when he had learned from the masters and expanded upon it, forming his own musical aesthetic in the process. During his student years at the Paris Conservatoire he had the reputation of being a rebel. He would begin a Bach prelude by first extemporizing in strange chords and harmonies before launching into a highly romanticized performance. Debussy expressed his musical aesthetic as a student in these words:
I am sure the Institute would not approve, for, naturally it regards the path which it ordains as the only right one. But there is no help for it! I am too enamoured of my freedom, too fond of my own ideas!The string quartet of 1893 was the only composition Debussy gave an opus number to, thus Debussy's reason for using it isn't known. It is also the only work that has a key designation. It is a harbinger of things to come for subsequent works. Debussy pours very different music into the old wine skin of the string quartet. The quartet is in 4 movements:
I. Animé e très décidé (Decidedly very animated) - Debussy gives a passing nod to sonata form in the first movement. He begins with the first theme right off. This theme is also the basis of the entire quartet as it appears throughout the movements of the quartet in various guises and strange harmonies, thus Debussy also pays homage to Franck and Liszt in using cyclical form. The theme is in the Phrygian mode, a mode related to the minor scale. The second theme is more lyrical and retains some of the qualities of the initial theme. Instead of a more traditional development section, Debussy writes subtle variations on the second theme. They appear in different harmonies and scales. The recapitulation weaves the two themes in and out with shifting harmonic feeling until the movement ends.
II. Assez vif et bien rythmé (Quite lively and well paced) - The movement begins with pizzicato chords in the first violin and cello. The viola plays a figure that repeats while the first violin plays a variant of the main theme of the first movement pizzicato. Debussy marks this section over the first violin part un peu en dehors, somewhat prominent. The music repeats with the roles of the instruments changing. The trio section of this scherzo is but slightly more subdued. The scherzo begins again, new material is introduced that maintains the spikiness of the music. The movement began with one sharp in the key signature, ostensibly G major, but the music is such a kaleidoscope of changing tonal colors that the listener can't be sure of where Debussy is at harmonically. The movement goes its merry way until it ends pianississimo (ppp). Debussy has written a movement that is outwardly consistent with the tradition of string quartets, that is, a scherzo. But the form he uses and the sounds he produces are hardly traditional.
III. Andantino, doucement expressif (Andantino, very expressive) - Written in the key of D-flat, Debussy varies the main theme of the first movement drastically in sensual music that adds to the imaginative sound palette of the first two movements. The music reaches a climax, and winds down with a repeat of the theme in the last bars that are stunning in their simplicity and serene calmness.
IV. Très modéré (Very moderately) - The finale begins with a section that repeats music heard in the previous three movements, a practice used by composers to create unity within the movements of a work. After this section, the music goes off on its own variations of the main theme. The pace of the music quickens, and the final chords are played.
To our modern ears Debussy's quartet cannot create the same effect that it did to the audiences of 1893, but the premiere of the work met with mixed reactions from listeners and critics. It went on to become a standard piece of the chamber music repertoire, along with having a great influence on many composers. Debussy began a second quartet, but soon turned his attention to orchestral writing. He wrote very few chamber music works, and only came back to the genre in the years shortly before his death in 1918.
Debussy summed up his thoughts on music later inhis career with these words:
There is no theory. You have only to listen. Pleasure is the law. I love music passionately. And because l love it, I try to free it from barren traditions that stifle it. It is a free art gushing forth — an open-air art, boundless as the elements, the wind, the sky, the sea. It must never be shut in and become an academic art.He demonstrated with the writing of his string quartet that he knew the musical traditions of the time very well. He was a true rebel, for he knew exactly what he was rebelling against. He knew the rules, and he chose to break them and go his own way, even in a work that at least on the surface, resembled the traditional form of the string quartet.