Musical Impressionism is a style of music that developed in Paris, France at the end of 19th/ beginning of the 20th Century. Where Romanticism had been the expression of deep felt emotion, Impressionism was an expression of mood and atmosphere.
Impressionism had it’s forerunners in some earlier works by Chopin, Liszt, Grieg, Faure, Duparc, Chausson and Sibelius. Debussy however is more or less considered the main exponent. Another contemporary who deserves a mention is Ravel although it is debatable whether Ravel ever truly saw himself as belonging to the genre. (Mawer, 2000). Other composers connected to Impressionism were Manuel de Falla, Enrique Granados, Paul Dukas and Alexander Scriabin. Ernest Fanelli developed his own Impressionistic style as the beginning of the 1880s, but his works were not heard until 1912.
Claude Debussy traveled to Russia as a child. There he heard gypsy music and Russian composers. Russian composers were later to assert a strong influence on him. He was particularly affected by Moussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov. Other strong influences were Wagner, Chopin and Gamelan music. (Engel and Ewen, 2016)
Debussy created a musical dreamscape, unlocking the imagination and transporting the listener into a state of reverie. Like sonic paintings, evoking both internal and external landscapes. Impressionism created a musical language so visual it seamlessly married the sense of hearing to that of sight. It is not hard to see why the style was likened to a style of painting. Ironically Claude Debussy, it’s creator, did not approve of the label ‘Impressionism’ to describe his music.
‘What I am trying to do is something different — an effect of reality, but what some fools call Impressionism, a term that is usually misapplied, especially by the critics who don’t hesitate to apply it to Turner, the greatest creator of mysterious effects in the whole world of art.’ (Schonberg, 1997: 464)
His aims were to depict the magical and the mystical. Creating musical dreams, allegories and musical depictions of mysterious Nature.
‘The music I desire must be supple enough to adapt itself to the lyrical effusions of the soul and the fantasy of dreams.’ (Shapiro, 1981: 194)
Debussy’s own aesthetic was closer to that of Symbolism and he saw himself as part of the Symbolist movement.
According to Mallarmé the Symbolist’s were trying ‘to depict not the thing but the effect it produces’. (Morris, 2007)
One of the first fully formed pieces of music of this genre was Debussy’s ‘Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun’. It was ‘set to’ the poem, ‘The Afternoon of a Faun’ by Stephane Mallarmé. It tells of a slumbering faun dreaming of sensual encounters with nymphs. The faun, on the cusp of waking, is not certain whether he is dreaming or is awake.
Claude Debussy’s ‘Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun’, was supposed to be a triptych but only the Prelude was completed. It could be argued that it is a tone poem, following the seven sections of Mallarme’s poem with seven repetitions (or variations thereof) of the main flute theme, each time harmonised in a new and unconventional way. Mallarme’s 110 lines are matched by 110 bars of music. (Davenant Performing Arts Dept, S.A). It does not however exactly try to detail every word or action in the poem. Debussy himself saw it more as a description of the space the faun physically and mentally inhabits.
The Faun’s flute motif opens with outlining the dangerous, historically forbidden tritone- ‘Diabolus in Musica’. (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, 2010)
By the Romantic period composers such as Wagner and Liszt had started to use the dissonant interval frequently to express ‘evil’ and ominous atmospheres.
Debussy seized on this interval to symbolise his Faun. After all, what could be more appropriate for this decadent goat God, this Pan? Decadence and Symbolism were closely interlinked at the time and Debussy undoubtedly wanted to rebel against the establishment with his refusal to adhere to the conventions of functional harmony.
He created a deliberate sense of ambiguity and atonality. The key alluded to is E Major but this key is constantly undermined, with the first motif resolving to the dominant 7th of EbMajor. Then a whole tone section is introduced. Although the use of whole tone scales can be traced as far back as Bach it is fair to say that Debussy’s use became the most extensive and innovative to date.
Debussy used the timbre of the instruments to create very specific colours and to use new instrumentation combinations to create colour shifts. With a relatively small orchestra he managed to create a very rich tapestry of sound. The string parts were frequently divisi and various techniques such as ‘sur la touche’ were used. The effect was otherworldly and subtle.
The woodwind section with it’s flutes, the harps playing glissandi and the ancient crotales all painted a magical, pastural fantasy. Very much the scene of a Faun’s reveries.
Debussy definitively achieved the musical agility, lightness and subtleness of tone colour required to convey this dream state. It is so effective I find it near impossible to listen to this piece critically and stay in an analytical state of mind. I am constantly pulled into the music and drift away with it. A fully realised piece of music.
With Faun and what followed Debussy created a whole new set of sonorities.
Strings were no longer only lyrical instruments. Woodwind colour and brass were also extended, to the point of each instrument having the prominence of a soloist. Chordal melodies, parallel chords, fleshed out unisons, unprepared modulations, wholetone and pentatonic scales were the tools offering a new way of developing music without using functional harmony.
The Influence of Impressionism on future composers was enormous. A direct lineage can be traced to Alan Hovhaness, György Ligeti, Toru Takemitsu, Messiaen, Pierre Boulez and French Modernism and further to film music of the 1940’s onwards and jazz musicians such as Bix Beiderbecke, Duke Ellington, Claude Thornhill, Gil Evans, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Frank Kimbrough. (Wikipedia, 2017)
List of Illustrations
Figure 1. Lazic, S. (2017) Debussy Ink [Photograph] In: possession of: The author: Lazic.
Brown, M. (2012) Debussy Redux: The Impact of His Music on Popular Culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Centre de documentation Claude Debussy. (s.d) Cashier Debussy. At: http://www.debussy.fr/encd/pub/sommaires.php (Accessed on 1 April 2017)
Classic Fm. (s.d ) Claude Debussy (1862–1918): Biography. At: http://www.classicfm.com/composers/debussy/ (Accessed on 3 April 2017)
Cooke, M. (2008) A history of film music. [Kindle edition] From: Amazon. co. uk (Accessed on 9 March 2017)
Davenant Performing Arts Dept. (s.d) 5. Debussy: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. At: http://davenantperformingarts.org.uk/AjaxRequestHandler.ashx?Function=GetSecuredDOC&DOCUrl=App_Data/davenantperformingarts_org_uk/ClassPages/022/_Documents_2012-13/Unit-6-5-Debussy.pdf (Accessed on 20 April 2017)
Debussy, C. (2017) Debussy: Prélude à ‘l’après-midi d’un faune’ / La Mer (1000 Years of Classical Music, Vol.63). [Download] Available at : Claude Debussy – Prélude à ‘L’Après-midi d’un Faune’, L.86 (Accessed on 6 April 2017)
Debussy, C. (1895) Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. In: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. Paris: E. Fromont. [Online] At: http://imslp.org/wiki/Pr%C3%A9lude_%C3%A0_l%27apr%C3%A8s-midi_d%27un_faune_(Debussy,_Claude) (Accessed on 28 April 2017)
Denis, A. (1983) ‘Tritone’. In: The New Oxford Companion to Music, Volume 1: A–J : Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Devoto, M. (2004) Debussy And The Veil Of Tonality: Essays On His Music. New York: Pendragon Press.
Engel, C. and Ewen, D. (2016) The Life and Work of Claude Debussy. [kindle edition] From: Amazon.co.uk Accessed on: (3 April 2017)
Falla, M.d. (s.d) Manuel de Falla. [Download] Available at : Manuel de Falla – Noches en los Jardines de España: I. En el Generalife (Accessed on 2 March 2017)
Fanelli, E. (s.d) Ernest Fanelli. [Download] Available at : Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra – D’apres Le Roman De La Momie: I. Thebes: Devant Le Palais De Tahoser – Lydia Drahosova, Mezzo-soprano (Accessed on 6 April 2017)
Griffiths, P. (2006) A concise history of Western music. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Mawer, D. (2000) The Cambridge Companion to Ravel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Morris, C. (2007) ‘Roderick The Elusive Symbolist movement article.’ In: NY Times [online] At : http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/16/arts/16iht-conway.4930748.html?pagewanted=all (Accessed on 3 April 2013)
LA PHIL. (s.d) ABOUT THE PIECE: PRELUDE TO THE AFTERNOON OF A FAUN. At: http://www.laphil.com/philpedia/music/prelude-to-afternoon-of-faun-claude-debussy (Accessed on 20 April 2017)
Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (2010) [user-generated content online] Creat. Simmons, M. 4 October 2010 At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bVGBH8JmF5U (Accessed on 20 April 2017)
Ravel, M. (s.d) Maurice Ravel [Download] Available at : Maurice Ravel – Gaspard de la nuit, M. 55: I. Ondine (Accessed on 3 April 2017)
Schonberg, H. (1997) The Lives of the Great Composers. (Third Edition) London : WW Norton & Co.
Schrott, A. (s.d) Claude Debussy: Biography by Allen Schrott. At: http://www.allmusic.com/artist/claude-debussy-mn0000768781/biography (Accessed on 3 April 2017)
Shapiro, N. (1981) An Encyclopedia of Quotations About Music. (1977 edition) Boston: Da Capo Press.
Taruskin, R. and Gibbs, C. (2013) The Oxford History of Western music. (College Edition) New York: Oxford University Press, Inc.
Wikipedia. (2017) ‘Impressionism in Music’ definition [online] At: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impressionism_in_music (Accessed online on 3 April 2017)