The Lutheran hymn "Ein' Feste Burg" in Claude Debussy's Cello Sonata (1915): motivic variation and structure

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Ragno, Janelle Suzanne

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Although very few cellists are aware of its presence in the Debussy Cello Sonata, the notes and rhythm of the Lutheran hymn “Ein’ feste Burg” are quoted Debussy’s initial sketch of the sonata, implying a raison d’être that until now has remained unnoticed. The discovery of Debussy’s application of motives derived from the hymn will redefine how musicians view the sonata, as the symbolic significance of a motivic variational process based on the hymn and hidden quotes of the French anthem “La Marseillaise” in the third movement of the Sonata will place this piece into the context of World War I and in accord with the nationalist attitudes of the French and Germans at the time. Currently, the popular explanation of the sonata involves the commedia dell’arte story of Pierrot Angry at the Moon, but there is no solid evidence for the claim, only rumors. Debussy also did not write in isolation from the artistic community. Between the Prussian War and World War I certain groups sought to preserve French culture by calling for a return to French classicism in music (from the styles of Rameau and Couperin) and by banning all German music. While Debussy admitted his desire to preserve French culture, he refused to adhere to their artistic demands which would have limited his art. This treatise will examine Debussy’s response to the situation and the significance of “Ein’ feste Burg” and “La Marseillaise” in the Cello Sonata. “Ein’ feste Burg,” more commonly known in English as “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” was composed by Martin Luther in 1529 during the Protestant Reformation. Since its composition, a number of composers have set the hymn for various purposes; Debussy used the hymn and “La Marseillaise” in the piano duet En blanc et noir of 1915, the same year as the Cello Sonata. The work is thought to depict the conflicts between France and Germany through programmatic descriptions of war and symbolic presentations of the melodies, set within a tonal dichotomy which is based on the musical process in Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande. By this study, it will be now known that the Cello Sonata also bears the “Ein’ feste Burg” hymn, which undergoes a motivic variational process in the work. In the first movement of the Cello Sonata, entitled “Prologue,” “Ein’ feste Burg” is hidden within a more traditional French style. In the second movement, entitled “Sérénade,” the hymn is treated more abstractly through motivic variation. This results in a conflict of keys and motives that are then defeated by motives of “La Marseillaise” in the third movement, entitled “Finale.” The contours of the melodic lines based on both tunes in the Cello Sonata are in some cases nearly identical except for the change in rhythm. In this treatise, I will analyze in detail the motivic variational process to which it appears Debussy subjected the “Ein’ feste Burg” theme in the Cello Sonata, and the structure that evolves from that process.