The Impressionist artists created a whole new way of painting and viewing their world. A core group of painters worked together and influenced each other, and then inspired the musicians. One compositional technique that reflected the paintings was the whole tone scale. It is a wonderfully ambiguous sound – with no strong notes that want to pull one way or another – but yet often with enough of a “tonal centre,” or repeated pitch, that there is still a certain grounding.
A great piece for teaching this scale and sound to young students is Anne Crosby’s Starfish at Night from her collection, Freddie the Frog. Because it is based on the whole tone scale there is of necessity quite a number of sharps in the score but it is easy to teach by rote, and with the black key glissandi and pedal held throughout, it is a lot of fun for the students. It opens their ears and minds to a different sound. I use the opportunity to teach them both whole tone scales while we’re at it.
Debussy’s Voiles, one of his Preludes for Piano, is my favourite piece based on the whole tone scale. The meaning of voiles is intentionally vague – it could mean sails or veils, depending on the gender of the noun, which has not been given in the title. This mysteriousness adds to the atmosphere of the music. Being able to demonstrate the first few lines is reason enough to keep my fingers in shape – to find that hour a day to spend at the piano myself. Here, though, is French pianist Francois-Joel Thiollier playing Voiles.