Claude Debussy, now known for his experimental and influential compositions, was breaking free of traditional methods even at a young age. A pupil at the Paris Conservatory for 12 years beginning at the age of 11, Debussy was “a little backward in the rudiments” that were taught. Though he was heavily impacted by Wagner at first, he tried to shed the influences in his own music for his originality’s sake. A lot of his own style came from aspects of the Symbolist movement with a departure from typical forms (i.e. ABA). Debussy made use of such controversial techniques as whole tone scales and atypical harmonies for the purpose of supporting poetic imagery; his works rarely found unanimity regarding support from their audiences. In his later works, Debussy took greater chances, implementing more non-resolving dissonances (self-proclaimed “floating chords”) and fragmented forms.
Voiles, from Debussy’s first book of Preludes, certainly displays some of Debussy’s compositional affinities. I would argue the tonality of this piece as being primarily based in C major. Though its repeated employment of whole-tone (and some pentatonic) scales as well as a consistent B♭ pedal make it all the more ambiguous, as was Debussy’s intent, there are several key clues that C is the tonal center. First off, the whole tone scales which Debussy utilizes in the beginning of the piece are C whole tone scales (C, D, E, F#, G#, B♭, C). Notably, after two instances of this are seen, the piece lands on a C major chord without a fifth (understandably, since the fifth degree in such a whole-tone system would be g#, creating an augmented chord instead) in measure 5. This occurs again in measure 13. The other chord given some focus in this opening (by the descending whole tone scale landing upon it on several occasions) is what looks like an A♭ major triad, again without a fifth. This chord is built on the respelled fifth in the C whole tone series (G#/A♭); therefore, this opening sequence alludes to a traditional alternation between I and V.
Furthermore, the conclusion of the piece also implies C major, reinforcing this theory. The whole tone scale built upon F# (mm62-63) repeatedly resolves to the same C major chord as in the piece’s opening (C and E, without the fifth). The restatement of and final settlement on this chord implies the tonic.
The previously discussed whole tone scales make up the majority of the scales that Debussy utilizes in “Voiles.” However, he also employs a passage of pentatonic scales from measures 42-47. This change from whole tone to pentatonic scales can be seen at the change of key signature and can be heard in the tonal shift from C to F#/G♭; this mimics the modulation to the dominant that listeners might expect in the B section of a traditional piece. In fact, the shift to pentatonic marks the end of the A section (mm1-41), and the duration of the pentatonic usage lies within the B section of the piece. Though whole tone scales resume at measure 48, the piece remains in the semi-dominant throughout measure 57, distinguishing measures 42-57 as the B section. At measure 58, the A section returns. It begins with a repetition of opening material.
As stated previously, the whole tone scales make the tonal center somewhat ambiguous, an intention that is clear in the title of this work. “Voiles” can be translated into “Veils,” which is precisely what the whole tone scales do in this piece; they serve to veil the piece’s tonality. In this way, the song evokes a sense of ambiguity and lack of direction, though beneath it there is a subconscious sureness of direction in the hidden tonality of the key.