Written and published on the internet by Shengdar Tsai (http://icarus.reshall.umich.edu/). Reproduced here with permission.
"I am trying to do 'something different'- in a way realities- what the imbeciles call `impressionism' is a term which is as poorly used as possible, particularly by art critics."
- Claude Debussy in a letter of March, 1908
The term impressionism was first used by Louis Leroy in the French paper Charivari in application to the now famous painter Monet in a derogatory way over the vague nature of his work, Impressions: Sunrise. The aim of impressionists was to "suggest rather than to depict; to mirror not the object but the emotional reaction to the object; to interpret a fugitive impression rather than to seize upon and fix the permanent reality." (Thompson 21) It is an art of abstraction, in which mystery and vagueness are to be desired, and not avoided. There are no absolutes; impressionism is the antithesis of realism. Impressionism differs greatly from the expressionism. "Formal concern, intellectuality and concise expression have now been augmented by sentiment, imagination and effect."
As Romanticism developed as a response to Expressionism, so Impressionism begin as a movement in the mid-1800's as a reaction to the excesses of emotion and romanticism that preceded it. Monet's picture painted at Le Havre in 1872 created an "impression" of the merging of water and sky seamlessly and imperceptibly into each other. An impressionist is thus one who tries to suggest and evoke meaning rather than flatly describe. In music this is characterized by tonality, unresolved dissonance, and ambiguities. It's a system of sensation, in which reality stands and is ultimately conceived in personal perception.
"He [Debussy] is not the slightest bit an impressionist. He is, on the contrary, the musician who makes use everywhere of symbols. For the landscape worthy of music, worthy of poetry, worthy of art in short, is a symbol and only a symbol," states Suares. (Thompson 18) E. Robert Schmitz declares,
"The public, imbued with Wagnerian aesthetics, quickly exchanged study of these works for a rapid and easy label, which if thoughtfully applied to a limited one percent of Debussy's works, might have been ingenious, but which poured on indiscriminately, has resulted for decades in blurred, vague, sloppy, wrongly pedaled, innocuous performances of Debussy's works." (14)
Debussy himself attempted to distance himself from the term as seen in the primary opening quotation. Yet at the core of Debussy's art and ideals, is an indubitable basis of impressionism, heavily influencedby impressionist artists and writers of his time.
The impressionist movement first became present in art, specifically in the works of Joseph Turner. Turner's major work, Rain, Steam, and Speed (see fig. 2),1844, was considered the forerunner of Impressionist painting. They have a mysterious luminescent quality, with "vaguely suggested shapes that became the hallmarks of the French painters. Critics called Turner's work "pictures of nothing," and "tinted steam." Although Turner actually preceded what are now considered to be pure impressionist painters (Monet, Renoir, Cezanne), his underlying ideas and style were very similar. The influence of Turner upon Debussy is unquestionable. In 1891, when Turner was almost unknown in France, he was mentioned twice in Debussy's letters, once superlatively as the "finest creator of mystery in art." (Halford 2) Both became drawn to the qualities of illusion and dreams over reality. This vagueness reflected in the blending of colors, shades, shadows in the works of Turner are passed onto the trademark tonal ambiguity in Debussy.
Studies of 1895 and 1902 proclaimed parallels between color and sound, reflecting the development of a valid connection between music and art, especially impressionist music and impressionist art. Famous critic Camille Mauclair suggests that "light is used in Impressionist painting in the manner that a theme in music is symphonically developed. He writes, `The landscapes of Claude Monet are in fact symphonies of luminous waves, and the music of Monsieur Debussy, based not on a succession of themes but on the relative values of sounds in themselves, bears a remarkable resemblance to these pictures. It is Impressionism consisting of sonorous patches." (Lockpeiser 17)
Lockpeiser's landmark work, Debussy: His Life and Mind points out that Impressionist painting and music closely parallel each other in their choice of subjects. Renoir and Monet's greatest works are paintings of a dreamy young woman gazing at reflections in water, water's depths, or the sky. The idea of reflection is very important, as in impressionism, the reflection is more "real" than the actuality. Two examples of such art works are The Boat (1867) by Renoir, and Argenteuil-sur-Seine (1868). In each the "Impressionist technique allowed the state of reverie to be boldly explored." It is no coincidence that one of Debussy's most popular piano works is entitled Reverie. (Lockpeiser 19,20) One of his earlier works, it shows the warmth and fluidity of his later styles, although lacking in the harmonic patterns which would later appear in his mature works. However it is a revealing precursor to the truly impressionistic style which would appear later on. Debussy also composed several "water-pieces" which mirror the spirit of the aforementioned Impressionist pictures, specifically En bateau (1889), Sirenes (1899), Reflets dans l'eau (1905), Voiles (1910), and La Cathedrale engloutie (1910).
Perhaps, next to Turner, Japanese artist Hokusai was the greatest influence upon Debussy's works. Hokusai experimented with effects of light, patterns, shapes, and silhouettes. The similarities between Hokusai and Turner were noted by many writers of the day. The Japanese depiction of rain was through means of bold, parallel lines, contrasting, yet similar in ways to Turner's version. Debussy's obvious appreciation of Hokusai's work is manifest in the cover of the score of La Mer, which was a reproduction of Hokusai's print, The Hollow of the Wave of Kanogawa (see fig. 3), at the composer's request.
Hokusai's painting shows a wave breaking over into spray, foam, and smaller waves. It is an image of terror, elegance, and awesome power, simultaneously through Hokusai's usage of perspective. In a study of Hokusai's work in 1896, Edmond de Goncourt writes,
"The design for The Wave is a deified version of the sea made by a painter who lived in a religious terror of the overwhelming sea surrounding his country on all sides; it is a design which is impressive by the sudden anger of its leap into the sky, by the deep blue of the trnasparent inner side of its curve, by the splitting of its crest which is thus scattered into a shower of tiny drops having the shape of animals' claws."
This vivid yet suggestive imagery is very well suited to the spirit of Debussy's works. It is seen in Debussy's view of nature, which is typically vague, dreamy, with a type of "luminosity." La Mer is an obvious example and will be dealt with further on in the paper.
Drawing from his exposure to Impressionism in painting, Debussy attempted to recreate the subtle, nuances in shading, light which made this new type of artform unique. Starting with l'Apres-midi d'un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun) impressionistic imagery and style becomes characteristic of Debussy's works. This type of imagery can also be found in the symbolist movement of the time in literature which was also among the major influences upon Debussy.
As Turner was a precursor to the Impressionist movement in art, so was famous American writer Edgar Allan Poe a "progenitor of the Symbolist movement." Poe believed in the "confusion and intermingling of all sense-impressions." (Palmer 16) In his works, many of which are intensely psychological depictions of dreams or mental actions, Poe attempts to describe his idea of an ultimate reality, inside a person's thoughts without concreteness. Poe's dedication of his work Eureka revealing, "to the dreamers and those who put their faith in dreams as the only realties." Poe stated about music, "I know that indefiniteness is an element of true music, a suggested indefiniteness bringing about a definiteness of vague and therefore spiritual effect." It appears that Debussy had attempted to write an opera based on The Fall of the House of Usher, an excellent story by Poe, which depicts among other things a women who is buried alive by her own brother! (This work was never completed.) (Dietschy 54) Statements such as these cannot be presented directly, but rather must be slowly impressed upon the reader by means of slow development and suggestive handling. To quote Edmund Wilson, "Poe's work is not so much what he actually says that matters as what he makes the reader feel, and that he had elements in him that corresponded with the indefiniteness of music and the exactitude of mathematics." (Palmer 16)
The major representatives of the Symbolist movement affecting Debussy are the French poets Verlaine and Mallarme. As the name implies, among the primary goals of the symbolist movement was the usage of symbols, images to represent reality, and to evoke meanings beyond the material world, falling into the higher realities of the world of illusion, of dreams. Water suggested calm tranquillity, introspection. Fire was a symbol of passion, rage, etc. Symbolism is technically considered to be a literary school, popular in Paris in the 1880's and '90s, gaining attention for its "ambiguity of indirect communication; affiliation with music and decadent spirit." The symbolist movement in literature truly closely paralleled the impressionistic aspects in music,
Thus, Mallarme, the symbolist movement's most "characteristic and influential spokesman" calls for indirect communication, in that naming a object is satisfactory, but "suggesting" it, in poetry, is ideal. Mallarme is of course the famous author of l'Apres-midi d'un faune which is now both a literary and musical work of art due to Debussy's great accomplishment. Truly the first orchestral impressionistic work, this will also be discussed in depth below. Mallarme's "objectives", as well as those of the entirety of the Symbolist school were those of vagueness and imprecision, to explore worlds of fantasies and dreams. Verlaine puts this goal into verse:
"Rien de plus cher que la chanson
Ou lIndecis au Precis se joint."
(Nothing is more precious than that gray song,
Where indecision is joined to precision.)
Thus, themes, progressions in Debussy's music are very often left unresolved, and incomplete, in order to guide and steer the listener without blatant assertions or statements. It is interesting to note that, "It was the writers, not the musicians who exercised the strongest influence on Debussy." (Dukas 37)
It seems that the distinctions made between Symbolism and Impressionism are truly superfluous. Paul Landormy's comments on this subject seem worth examining. He questions, very astutely, "Is a certain kind of symbolism very far removed from impressionism? Think of Verlaine, the most gifted representative of symbolism in France. Are we not straightway inclined to regard symbolism as simply the impressionism of literature?" It appears that the terms impressionism in art, symbolism in literature, Debussyism in music are synonymous with each other.
l'Apres-midi d'un Faun
Perhaps the first of Debussy's works which can formally be considered impressionistic in nature is l'Apres-midi d'un faune (Prelude to te Afternoon of a Faun). Literature and music critic Arthur Symons, an authority on the Symbolist movment maintains that Debussy is, "the Mallarme of music, not because he has set L'Apres-midi d'un faune to sound, but because the music has all the qualities of the poem and none, for instance, of Verlaine.... Mallarme has a beauty of his own, calculated, new alluring; and Debussy is not less original, aloof , deliberately an artist." (Lockpeiser 120) Written when Debussy was 30 years old, l'apres-midi d'un faune was intended to be a three-movement symphony in free form. The orchestration of this piece was revolutionary in terms of lines and harmony. It's very opening is unique, with a beautiful, elegant, yet haunting flute solo. The tonal modulations of of the opening line shatters the familiar order of traditional tonality. (Harder 125) Debussy exploits the blend of chromaticism to achieve a unique sound which is intended to sustain, and intermix, yet almost paradoxically to retain a sense of clarity. This is the classic pitfall in the performance of Debussy, as related by former student Marguerite Long, namely over "blurring." Maurice Dumesnil, another student of Debussy emphasized that Debussy's music should never be dry, and while harmonies are not "blurred" together, they need the effect of "tonal wamth." (Halford 9)
It is interesting to note Debussy's usage of intervals of three, known as tritones as opposed to traditional fifths and sixths. The piece has an overall sense of unity, yet entirely different from the Wagnerian sense. Wagner developed the idea of themes (leitmotifs) which would be changed and repeated depending on characters, mood, etc. Debussy's changes of theme, character are set through an "equilibrium of feelings and textures, fluid, transparent, scattered in multiple nuances, the most delicate blending of light and shade." (Cox 14) Mirroring the impressionist style of painting, images, themes are blended seamlessly so that the transitions are as fluid and undetectable as possible. Debussy's use of "instrumental color" has been likened to the theories on pointillist technique in painting. Note that it is true that the term impressionism in music, although very useful, can be misinterpreted. While the overall effect is an aura of vagueness, mystery, suggestion, the actual music is not. One of Debussy's greatest demands of his students was a strict attention to notations in the score, and making them follow them faithfully. To quote the words of Verlaine, "In Debussy's piece, imprecision meets precision."
Pelleas et Mellisande
It would never do to forget Maeterlinck, whose drama was the basis for Debussy's only completed opera, Pelleas and Melisande, a true scandal in its opening. Music critics at the time were "almost unanimous in their condemnation" of the work. For many years to come this would be referred to as the "scandal of Pelleas", the shock, indignation and outrage over the opera and its unconventional form. Bettina Knapp observes in her book, Maurice Maeterlinck (1975), "In good symbolist tradition... symbols are the chief vehicles and used in his dramas to arouse sensations, to breath life into the ephemeral essences which people Maeterlincks's stage." Pelleas was truly a turning point in Debussy's career.
Pelleas et Melisande, with its imagery, and powers of suggestion was truly a fitting work for Debussy's first operatic work. "Images... continually suggest further meanings and nuances in the plot and characters..." (Spaeth 13) Maeterlinck's "drama" is truly interesting. It had no well-defined themes or action. The plot is vague, and without clear direction. (Ketting 27) Yet, these among other things contribute to the impressionist nature of the work. Pelleas cannot be taken as a series of directed events, isolated interests. Rather one must. form an "impression" of the work as a whole. A revolutionary step in Pelleas was Debussy's break with the traditional diatonic system. Rather than making clear, closed statements with tonic cadences, Debussy avoids them. The usage of whole-tone scale is markedly increased. With whole-tone chord modulation, Debussy manipulates harmony to reflect subtle changes in emotion, and character. Pelleas is a transition between Debussy's earlier genius of l'Apres-midi, to conscious and mature development of rhythm, tonality, melody in La Mer. (Nichols 45) Elements of impressionistic grow progressively with each work.
Finally, perhaps the greatest symphonic impressionist work of all time is Debussy's La Mer. Cox in fact claims it is the "best symphony ever written by a Frenchman." La Mer is great for its unity in form, with all important structural elements of a symphonic work (melody, harmony, rhythm, etc.) In La Mer, all of the greatest influences of Debussy's life are manifest. As a child, the son of a sailor, he was told wondrous stories of his father's
expeditions. Later on, Turner's sea pictures would also inspire Debussy, with their powers of suggestion. Debussy most likely saw Turner's pictures in Paris or at London's National Gallery in his travels of 1902 and 1903, around the time when he began composing La Mer. The resulting symphonic work is one of Debussy's greatest, a landmark work. It manages to be suggestive, yet with technical precision and clarity, a true masterpiece. The three movements are entitled "De l'aube a midi sur la mer" (From dawn to midday at sea), "Jeu de vagues" (Play of the waves), and "Dialogue du vent et de la mer" (Dialogue of the wind and the sea.). (Cox 26) The indelible mark of impressionism upon Debussy is evident in this remark which he made concerning his life away from the see. "But I have an endless store of memories, and to my mind, they are worth more than the reality, whose beauty often deadens thought." (Romanticism)
Like most of Debussy's works, La Mer stirred up great controversy at its onset. Debussy's was revolutionary in that he took a radical approach to harmony, melody, rhythm, and form. His music had a lyricality, a fluidity which was to transfigure 20th century music. In La Mer, Debussy began the so-called "impressionist" use of harmonies, which according to critic Arnold Schoenberg, "served the colouristic purpose of expressing moods and pictures." In La Mer, chord modulations, and progressions become more fluid, more subtle than ever before. Debussy's extended tonality enabled rapid shifting and movement, while retaining precise musical and technical basis. Rhythm patterns were irregular, giving way to almost free-form measures, losing the feeling of a strict barline. Use of a sharp fourth and flat seventh brought out interesting modulations and fluid changes of key. (Cox 33)
The influence of Hokusai upon Debussy in the last movement is particularly obvious. The chromatic opening begins with an interesting harmonic pattern, very mysterious of tension. The power and terror of Hokusai's work is reflected in the last movement, a dialogue. While the first movements are more gentle, and are a display of Debussy's subtle and skillful interweaving of harmonies, the third is ominous and dark, rising in what could almost be considered waves of sound. It climaxes at the end in a awesome burst of sound, which lingers long after the sound itself has died away.
Debussy's revolutionary new harmonies marked the beginning of true "impressionism" in music, which is preferably known as Debussyism, the terms being essentially equivalent. It is the "apotheosis of sensation." It is music considered sole for the sake of sensation, and none other. It is a "kind of music free from themes and motives, or formed on a single continuos theme, which nothing interrupts, and which never returns upon itself...." (Thompson 103) Debussy had created a music which would define the basis of French musical style for years to come. He had revolutionized harmony, freeing music from the formal rules always so carefully observed. In fact Thompson argues that, "Debussy has been the determining factor in the music of the 20th century because of the doors he opened and the restraints he cast aside." Myers reminds us of "how much contemporary western music owes to this pioneer who undoubtedly laid the foundations of that new harmonic language, which, with variations, is universally spoken today."
After careful study of the major impressionist/symbolist influences in Debussy's life, it seems obvious that those who denied the proper place of the term impressionism in application to Debussy's music were unequivocally mistaken. For, when Debussy responded to the original critic with those famous words, "what those imbeciles call 'impressionism' ," he was reacting to the idea of inherent negative imprecise, vague, and sloppy connotations of the word. A more suitable term for Debussy is symbolism as this seemed to be the greatest defining influence on his work. Even better, is the term Debussyism, as Debussy himself embodied all the qualities which are representative of impressionism in music. This fact is neatly illustrated in all of his mature works, most notably l'Apres-midi, Pelleas et Mellisande, and La Mer. Debussy's revolutionary usage of tonal ambiguity, the usage of pedal point, unresolved chords, dissonance, chromaticism all support the idea that the whole of Debussy's works truly were, without a doubt, impressionist in nature. In the redefined sense of the word, Debussy would have been pleased.
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Dietschy, Marcel. A Portrait of Claude Debussy. New York : Oxford University Press, 1990.
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Harder, Paul O. Bridge to 20th Century Music; A Programed Course. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1973.
Ketting, Piet. Claude-Achille Debussy. Stockholm: The Continental Book Company A.B.
Lockspeiser, Edward. Debussy; His Life and Mind. London: Cassell, 1962.
Nichols, Roger. Debussy. London: Oxford University Press, 1973.
Palmer, Christopher. Impressionism in music. London, Hutchinson, 1973.
Pasler, Jann. "Pelleas and power: forces behind the reception of Debussy's opera." 19th Century Music 10:243-64 Spring '87
Thompson, Oscar. Debussy, Man and Artist New York, Dodd, Mead & company, 1937.
Schmitz, E. Robert, 1889-1949. The piano works of Claude Debussy. New York, Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1950.
Spaeth, Jeanne. "Sounding symbols." Opera News 52:12-14 Jan 30 '88