Saturday, January 18, 2014

Impressionism in Music

Musical impressionism shares a lot of similarities with its equivalent in the visual arts: it started in the late 19th century in France; it included a lot of techniques that "sound" similar to impressionist art, like vague tonalities, mostly subdued melodic patterns which always rise to a dramatic climax, and so on.  Its practitioners in both media hated the term, and especially in music it is very difficult to delineate the movement.

In music, unlike in art, Impressionism was a small countercurrent against the various Romantic schools of composition, which were still going strong.  Probably the only composer consistently associated with the movement was Claude Debussy (1862-1918), who vehemently hated to be classified as such.  Debussy was a French composer and pianist; most of his body of work is for the solo piano.  About the only thing music historians agree characterizes Debussy's work is that it is new and doesn't use traditional harmonies.  His music sometimes verges on atonality, a style in which there is no tonality at all.  It's hard for me to explain theoretically how his music sounds like Monet, so here are recordings of his Menuet from the famous Suite Bergamasque (which includes Clair de Lune) and La Cathedrale Engloutie from his first book of Preludes.

These two pieces are technically very similar: they're both highly chromatic pieces heavy in rapidly changing chords and repeated melodies.  However, a lot like Monet, Debussy uses different "colors" to evoke totally different moods.  I find the extent to which the music sounds like the art really amazing.


Joseph D'Amico said...

I don't really understand why all the impressionists seemed to hate being called impressionists. I really liked the beginning and end of the first piece. I see what you were talking about with the climax too.I liked how peaceful the second one was. I know that the background picture was of the parliament building, but I still think it was appropriate. If Debussy was trying to make it sound like cathedral bells I think he did a really good job--and I think maybe he was because of the title, but I don't know French so I can't be sure.I didn't really get what you were talking about with the whole "music sounds like the art" thing until I listened to the pieces for myself, but now that I have, I think you are totally right.

Samantha Gillen said...

I had the same skepticism about "the music sounding like the art" that you had, Joey. When I listened to the music, though, it was still difficult for me to draw a connection for some reason. I find it odd that Debussy is the only true Impressionist composer. I looked him up on wikipedia and the website said "The French literary style of his period was known as Symbolism, and this movement directly inspired Debussy both as a composer and as an active cultural participant." It made me wonder how can a musician incorporate symbolism into his work. Any ideas Ian?