Music and the Other Arts: Impressionism as Example
The National Association for Music Education Composition/Theory Connect #11 standard asks: Demonstrate an understanding of relationships between music and the other arts. One entree into the subject is to consider the correspondences of artistic movements in quite different art forms. For example: Just as there was a nineteenth-century Impressionist school in painting, which began in France, so there was Impressionism in music, which also began in nineteenth-century France. Presented here are ideas for a comparison of one of the best-known pieces of Impressionist music, Claude Debussy's "Clare de lune," to the Impressionist
artworks below (by Edgar Degas and the Americans Mary Cassatt and Childe Hassam). See READ MORE or click the text box ↙
What is Impressionism?
Impressionism is most simply defined by the word it looks like: impressions, as in first impressions. Following the lead of the French Impressionist painters (Monet, Pissarro, Degas, Renoir, et al) the Americans Childe Hassam and Mary Cassatt sought to capture the ephemeral—fleeting sights, fleeting feelings, postures and gestures of a moment. Like Monet and Pissarro, Childe Hassam did much of his work outdoors, quickly, using paints that were not premixed on a pallet. A new Impressionist idea was that we the viewers do the mixing of colors in whatever we see. Like her friend and teacher Degas, Mary Cassatt spent more time and care on the composition of the picture, but gave a sense of the temporary with quick brushstrokes, sometimes leaving the work unfinished. The similarity in styles can be seen here in Degas's oil portrait of Mary Cassatt and Cassatt's watercolor portrait of herself, both at the National Portrait Gallery.
What is Impressionism in music?
Music considered Impressionist is often described as “atmospheric,” which might mean an attempt to express the literal atmosphere of a scene (such as Debussy’s moonlit landscape) or it might mean a pervading mood. The word atmospheric cannot help but suggest an airiness—a lightness of treatment, a delicacy that is indeed a hallmark of Impressionism in all its forms.
IDEAS FOR A DISCUSSION
After students have seen the artworks, listen to Claude Debussy's 1890 Suite bergmanesque, or just the movement "Clair de lune" in this public-domain recording. You might also share Debussy's inspiration for the piece, Paul Verlaine's 1869 poem of the same name:
Clair de lune Moonlight
Votre âme est un paysage choisi Your soul, the landscape that you chose,
Que vont charmant masques et bergamasques Is charmed by rustic marches, masquerades,
Jouant du luth et dansant et quasi And lutes. Some masks disguise and some disclose
Tristes sous leurs déguisements fantasques. Faint sorrows underneath. That too parades.
Tout en chantant sur le mode mineur The songs are in a minor key,
L'amour vainqueur et la vie opportune Though songs of love triumphant, opportune.
Ils n'ont pas l'air de croire à leur bonheur The singers seem to doubt their revelry
Et leur chanson se mêle au clair de lune, And mix their voices with the light, the moon:
Au calme clair de lune triste et beau, The moonlight's sad tranquility,
Qui fait rêver les oiseaux dans les arbres Which lulls the birds in trees into a dream
Et sangloter d'extase les jets d'eau, And stirs the fountains' weeping ecstasy,
Les grands jets d'eau sveltes parmi les marbres. Svelte jets of water which, mid marbles, stream.
(translation by Stephen Binns)
Verlaine is more often put into the category of Symbolism than Impressionism, but the two schools shared many ideas. Inspired by the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe and led by Charles Baudelaire, the Symbolists sought to suggest, through symbols, rather than describe. Verlaine wrote that he was after "nuance," which "unites dream with dream and flute with horn." The Symbolists aspired to the purity of music, which need only be, and need not represent. At the same time, composer Debussy represented Symbolist poetry with music. His other best-known work, Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, is based on a poem by Stéphane Mallarmé.
Questions for Non-Musicians
Composer Aaron Copland described Debussy's typical melodies as "elusive and fragmentary." Musicologist Joseph Machlis described the typical harmonics as "evanescent" (on the verge of vanishing).
Can you find moments in Debussy's "Clair de lune" that fit these descriptions?
Can you find areas in any of the paintings that might also be described as "fragmentary,"or even on the verge of vanishing?
Is there a subject in any of the paintings that seems "elusive" (something barely captured by the artist)?
What is the subject of the poem on which Debussy based his "Clair de lune"?
is the subject sharply defined, or is it otherwise?
Questions for Musicians
A section of "Clair de lune" is marked un poco mosso ("a little agitated" or "a little animated").
Can you find the point in the piece when this animation or agitation begins? How is the effect achieved?
Can you find areas of the paintings that might also be described as "un poco mosso"? (Hint: In reference to pictures, the Italian mosso means "blurry," as if a camera moved or an artist's hand shook.)
Debussy's original title for "Clair de lune" was "Promenade sentimentale" ("A Sentimental Walk."), which was also a reference to the poem by Verlaine.
Is there an element of the music that suggests walking to you? If so, how is this achieved?
Do the sentiments accompanying this "walk" correspond to sentiments in the poem?
Copland wrote that it was only in the nineteenth century that composers began to explore the two "sides" of the piano's nature by taking advantage of the possibilities of the pedal. On one "side," the piano's strings can be made to vibrate to produce "a sensuous and velvety or brilliant and brittle conglomeration of tones." On the other,
the piano can produce "harsh, percussive tonal effects."
On which "side" does Debussy most often come down?
Since "tone" can refer to color as well as to sound, which "side" of such tonal effects is found most often in the Impressionist paintings?
Note on the Translation of Verlaine's "Clair de Lune"
The translation strays from the exact at times to retain Verlaine's ABAB rhyme scheme and his meter (iambic tetrameter in the first lines of the stanzas, then iambic pentameter) in order to give a better sense of the rhythms Debussy heard in his native language. Not included in the translation:
Verlaine uses the word bergamasques, for which Debussy titled his piano suite. A bergamasque, or bergomask, was a rough, rustic dance, named for Bergamo in Italy.
Verlaine describes the moonlight not only as tranquil and sad, but also as beau: beautiful.
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