If Claude Monet is the titan of Impressionist art, his counterpart in music is Claude Debussy. Just don’t call Debussy an Impressionist.
I’m attempting ‘something different,’ realities in some sense, what imbeciles call impressionism, just about the least appropriate term possible
— Debussy wrote to his publisher in 1908
What did the “imbeciles” mean when they called his music Impressionistic? And why was Debussy offended by the term?
Monet’s paintings are characterized by distinct, thin brush strokes, soft edges, and changing light. Likewise, Debussy’s music blurs the edges and creates new harmonies in ways that give a dreamy characteristic to his music.
Conductor David Robertson, who created a series of multi-media Impressionist concerts, describes Impressionism this way:
Music often seems to have sometimes fairly hard edges. You can tap your foot to it. You can sing a melody fairly easily. It’s broken up into easily recognizable chunks. And the moment that Impressionism arrives, all of a sudden many of these clarities begin to be blurred and another kind of clarity comes through. The kind of clarity you would use to describe moonlight on water.
Hear the full interview with David Robertson at cpr.org.
Listen for Monet Mondays on CPR Classical to discover the fascinating link between Monet and the music of his time.
They All Knew Each Other
Monet was the fountainhead of Impressionism in art, but soon the ideals of Impressionism spilled over to music and literature. It’s no wonder. They all knew each other.
In the latter part of the 19th century, the artistic hub in Paris was located at 89 rue de Rome. On most Tuesday evenings, poet Stéphane Mallarmé invited artistic intellectuals to his home to discuss art, music, literature, and philosophy. Writers such as Oscar Wilde, Paul Verlaine, and W.B. Yeats together with artists like Édouard Manet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas, and occasionally Claude Monet, were a few of this artistic elite. Composer Claude Debussy would also join the group, which Mallarmé called “Les Mardistes” (mardi in French is Tuesday).
It was at these famous Tuesday night salons that Debussy discovered Mallarmé’s poem Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. The poem describes the sensual dream of a faun, a mythological half-man, half-goat creature who represented fertility. The poem’s meaning is obscure. Is the faun dreaming or are the nymphs in his dream real?
Debussy launched Impressionism in music with his musical interpretation of Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun in 1894. It personifies the poem’s ambiguity. The music is dreamy and sensual. There are no hard edges. It feels unrooted in time. No wonder conductor Pierre Boulez thought the piece marked the beginning of modern music when he said,
The flute of the faun brought new breath to the art of music.
Debussy’s Prelude was a rapturous success at its premiere. So why did Debussy bristle at being called an “Impressionist” composer? By 1894, the word had become derogatory. It was first used when critics hurled insults at Claude Monet’s painting Impression, Sunrise in 1874. Critics called the painting “unfinished” and compared it, unfavorably, to wallpaper. Monet and his friends didn’t care and co-opted the word for their new style of painting. But for Debussy, who was trying to establish his career, it was negative baggage.
In fairness, composers like Debussy were more aligned with poets and writers who were influenced by Monet’s revolution.
Debussy admired his friend, poet Paul Verlaine’s writing. Verlaine’s poem “Clair de Lune” (Moonlight) provided the inspiration for Debussy’s piano masterpiece of the same name (1890). Verlaine uses the adjectives “sad and beautiful” to describe the moonlight in his poem. Debussy is reported to have said, “Music is the space between notes,” and you hear that sentiment in the openness between the first notes in the piece. It’s a perfect musical combination of sadness and beauty found in Verlaine’s writing.
As far as we know, Debussy never wrote any music associated with a Monet painting. But we have Monet to thank for Debussy’s Nocturnes (1899). Monet introduced Debussy to the American painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler, whose gray, misty series of night scenes called Nocturnes inspired Debussy to create his own series of musical impressions. Sirens depicts the sea at night.
Sirènes depicts the sea and its countless rhythms and presently, amongst the waves silvered by the moonlight, is heard the mysterious song of the Sirens as they laugh and pass on.
Impressionism in art spread all over the world. Impressionism in music spread south to Spain with composers like Isaac Albeniz and Manuel de Falla, north to England with composers like Frederick Delius and even to America with Charles Tomlison Griffes. And today, Impressionist pieces like Debussy’s Clair de lune, Satie’s 3 Gymnopedies and Ravel’s Pavane for a Dead Princess are some of the most beloved in classical music.
Header Images: Claude Monet in his studio, 1920. Private collection/Roger-Viollet, Paris/Bridgeman Images. Debussy photo courtesy CPR via Wikimedia Commons.