Many Italian, German, and French terms have established themselves in the unique musical vocabulary over the centuries. In many respects, this represents the rich cultural heritage of European music that stretches back over ten centuries.
With France, Germany, and Italy playing such pivotal roles in the development of music and the wider culture of Europe, it is hardly surprising to find that in 2022, these words remain in use.
En Dehors Music
The term under the spotlight in this article is en dehors. The exact translation is often difficult, but in English, it would mean to stand out, or outside, emphasised, prominent. What is intended to stand out is the melody within a piece of music.
If, for example, the music was to be quite texturally complex or dense, a composer might direct the performer to play the melodic material in such a way that it sounds stands out or slightly away from the accompanying music.
As you might expect, French terms freely appear in the music of French composers. A solid starting place to investigate these musical words and phrases is in the scores of Debussy.
A momentary glance through the piano scores composed by Debussy soon reveals a plethora of direction and instruction that includes our title words.
As an opening illustration, in Debussy’s ‘Images’ (Book One) he includes en dehors in the piece magically titled ‘Reflects dans l’eau’. (1905) (Reflections in the water).
This delightful work is the first of three pieces from ‘Images’, and frequently appears as a separate piece in concert programmes.
En dehors appears first at around bar 51, depending on your edition, and is marked above an extremely high melodic line. Throughout the piece, there is a constant sense of flow or movement that changes speed just the same as reflections flitting across the surface of the water may do.
Debussy uses rising and falling extended arpeggios to capture the ebb and flow that serve not only to provide movement but also the harmonies throughout the piece. Sometimes, the melody is in the right hand whilst the left hand accompanies the fast-moving figures, other times it reverses.
What Debussy is indicating here at bar 51 is that even though there are quite a lot of notes scurrying about across the range of the piano, the delicate melody needs to be prominent. The dynamic of this passage is marked as piano (softly), making the balance that is intended quite challenging to achieve.
Towards the end of the piece, the marking appears again. (Around bar 79). On this occasion, the melody begins in the left hand and travels into the right hand just before the final section of the piece marked Lento.
This time, Debussy writes un peu en dehors suggesting that the melody just needs to stand out a little from the remaining notes. The texture at this part of the piece is considerably thinner than before, so the intended effect needs to be less.
Between 1903 and 1905, French composer Maurice Ravel wrote his Sonatine for solo piano. It contains only three movements, each composed in order during these years. There is a deliberate look back towards the music of the 18th Century in this work.
Classical structuring is prominent alongside a distinct elegance. Interestingly, the composition is cyclic. The opening musical ideas are not abandoned in the subsequent movements, instead, they undergo a metamorphosis serving as the genesis for the other two movements.
This was not Ravel’s innovation but that of pianist and composer Franz Liszt.
At around bar 12 in the opening movement, en dehors is written in the score. It arrives at a change in the texture from free-flowing demi-semi-quavers into a more homogenous section where the en dehors melody is accompanied by a three-part chordal figure.
In part this may also have been marked at this stage, as at the start of the piece, the melody is played in both hands an octave apart from the main melody then passing into the right hand with a second melodic element in the left hand.
Ravel includes the same marking in the final few bars of the opening movement as the same melodic material returns. It is accompanied identically but the key has transformed to F sharp major from the earlier F sharp minor.
Returning to Debussy again, a scan of his orchestral piece ‘L’apres midi d’un faune’ (1891-94), shows his use of the term once more. I thought this would serve as a useful illustration of en dehors in an orchestral context.
It is also one of the most famous and popular compositions Debussy wrote. On page twelve, the cor anglais and the clarinets share a short rising melody that a bar later passes to the French horns.
This could, amongst the backdrop of additional melodies and accompanying figures, be seconded to the background of the soundscape. Debussy marks this tres en dehors to ensure the idea is not buried and overlooked. It is a fine example of the subtly of Debussy’s intricate orchestration.
‘Jeux’ (1912), which Debussy composed with remarkable fluency and speed, he described as a danced poem. Like many of Stravinsky’s ballets, ‘Jeux’ was composed to a commission by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, to be choreographed by the legendary Nijinsky.
The score is incredibly detailed. It is meticulously constructed with seemingly every possible element of the music tightly controlled to reflect Debussy’s wishes. On page five, the words un peu en dehors appear in the cor anglais and divided violas.
In a similar way to the passage in ‘L’apres mid d’un faune’, the material here is a small but important motif that without the marking could be submerged in the complexities of the texture.
The instruction appears many times throughout the score, broadly with the same intentions to bring the melodic material through, or outside, the overall soundscape of the orchestra.
To illustrate a small parallel, the term also appears in ballet. Whilst the term still means outside or outward, in this discipline, it describes the direction in which the dancer, or presumably dancers, ought to be moving.