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Impressionism

 

 

 

 

 

 

Introduction

For as long as history has been recorded music has played an essential part in both the lives and cultures of man.  It has the ability to express countless numbers of emotions and entertain or represent cultures from all around the world.  During the life of composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918), new revelations were being made in music due to his new compositions and views of what music really is.  The Impressionist movement of the time involving French poets and painters influenced Debussy’s music greatly by placing the main focus of the work on a general mood and atmosphere and less on rigid structures or harsh details. Claude Debussy revolted against traditional harmonies and tone colors and fled to a place of self expression and freedom unheard of in this time period. The Impressionist movement was earth-shattering in musical history by repelling against normal major and minor chords, pleasantly resolving harmonies, structured forms, and typical tone colors and orchestrations.  Debussy’s first major composition, The Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, based on a poem by Stephane Mallarme, revolutionized these Impressionist changes as demonstrated in his compositional techniques such as orchestration, harmony, melody and form.

What is Impressionism

“Impressionist paintings of the 1870s were seen as formless collections of tiny colored patches which they are when viewed closely, however, from a distance the brush strokes blend and merge into recognizable forms and shimmering colors. Impressionist

painters were concerned primarily with effects of light, color, and atmosphere with impermanence, change, and fluidity.  As impressionist painters broke from traditional

depictions of reality, writers called symbolists rebelled against the conventions of French poetry.  Symbolist writers emphasized the purely musical, or sonorous, effects of words” (Roger 440). “The term impressionism was also used to describe Debussy’s work, and though the composer objected to the word, its implied comparison of his musical technique with the brushwork, coloration, and visual textures of the French painters of the late nineteenth century is apt. Debussy knew and admired the art of Manet, Renoir, Monet, and other painters of the Impressionist school. Chief among these was a delight in sensuous textures and slightly indistinct forms and shapes. Just as the Impressionist painters blurred the outlines of the objects they depicted, so Debussy’s fluid rhythms soften his melodic lines. Similarly, the complex harmonies of his music replace the unambiguous tone of conventional major and minor triads with sounds that seem more allusive and indistinct. Both the Impressionist painters and Debussy took inspiration from nature-from the sky, fields, and especially bodies of water. Debussy, with his penchant for harmonic ambiguities and fluid rhythm, shared their fascination with the irregular movement and varied colors of water” (Musically Speaking). “Debussy worked as did the great poets and painters, heightening reality by giving a new aural picture of the world” (Schonberg 465).

 

Debussy’s Life

“Claude Debussy was born on August 22, 1862 in a suburb of Paris called Saint-Germain-en-Laye” (Musically Speaking). “He eventually became a brilliant pianist and was admitted to the Conservatoire at the age of ten. Even at that time he was a natural rebel, one with the kind of questioning mind that did not hesitate to ask

embarrassing questions of his elders” (Schonberg 465). “In his late teens, Debussy worked summers as a pianist for Madame von Meck, the Russian patroness of Tchaikovsky. During these stays in Russia, Debussy’s lifelong interest in Russian music took root. In 1884, he won the highest award in France for composers, the Prix de Rome, which subsidized three years of study in Rome. He left Italy after on two years, however, because he lacked musical inspiration outside of his beloved Paris” (Schonberg 467). “Upon returning, Debussy fell into a Bohemian existence in Paris, living in obscurity and poverty for many years. At first he produced very little music of lasting value, however, he experimented a great deal and published very little as he searched for what would ultimately become one of the mist distinctive and original compositional voices in the history of music” (Musically Speaking). “His interests transitioned the Asian Javanese Gamelan music performed at the Paris International Exhibition of 1889, which had a strong impact on Debussy. “Do you not remember the Javanese music,” he wrote to a friend, “able to express every shade of meaning…which makes our tonic and dominant seem like ghosts” (Roger 437). “This was the first time such unusual rhythms and harmonies had been heard in the West, and it opened to Debussy a new world of sound” (Musically Speaking). “For years, Debussy led an unsettled life, earning a small income by teaching piano. His friends were mostly writers, such as Stephan Mallarme, whose literary gatherings Debussy attended regularly. Until the age of thirty one Debussy was little known to the musical public and not completely sure of himself. “There are still things I am not able to do-create masterpieces for example,” he wrote in 1893. That same

 

year Debussy did complete a masterpiece, his String Quartet and in 1894 he created another, the tone poem Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, which has

become his most popular orchestral work. Some critics complained about the absence of melody and the harmonies that broke traditional rules; others were delighted by the poetic atmosphere and subtle tone colors” (Roger 439). “Debussy also composed and published several other notable compositions, including Nocturnes, the sensuous seascape La Mer, Images, and many piano works” (Musically Speaking). “Though he was not gifted as a conductor and hated appearing in public, he presented his music throughout Europe” (Roger 437). “At the age of fifty he developed colon cancer and his condition worsened and he had to undergo surgery for the disease. He conceived a series of six sonatas for various instruments to extol and affirm his nation’s musical heritage in a time of national crisis during the outbreak of World War I but he only completed three before his death on March 25, 1918” (Musically Speaking).

 

Debussy’s Music

“Much of Debussy’s music has less to do with strict compositional structures and procedures or the clarity of traditional melodies and harmonies, than with mood, nuance, color, fluid, and unexpected shifts of harmony” (Hoffman 102). “Debussy’s music shows clear form and shimmering sequences of parallel chords” (Rademacher 141). “Like the French impressionist painters and symbolist poets, Debussy was a master at evoking a fleeting mood and misty atmosphere” (Roger 440). “He was a master at creating extraordinary new harmonies, highly unusual instrumental color, and evocative new

harmonies” (Musically Speaking). “His interest in the effects of fluidity, intangibility, and impermanence is mirrored even in his titles: Clouds, Reflections in the Water, and The Sounds and the Perfumes Swirl in the Evening Air. Literary and pictorial ideas often inspired Debussy, and most of his compositions have descriptive titles. His music sounds free and spontaneous, almost improvised” (Roger 441). He once wrote “I am more and more convinced that music, by its very nature, is something that cannot be cast into a traditional and fixed form. It is made up of colors and rhythms. The rest is a lot of humbug invented by frigid imbeciles riding on the backs of masters-who, for the most part wrote nothing but period music. Bach alone had an idea of the truth” (Schonberg 467). This stress on tone color, atmosphere, and fluidity is characteristic of impressionism in music. Debussy would combine instruments in unusual combinations such as muted brass over timpani along with the English horn and muted strings. Debussy also used the harp as a very independent and prominent instrument with flowing glissandos both up and down the scales. Women’s voices sung mellismatically without

text are unique to Debussy and act as another instrument adding a very unique color to his immense vocabulary. This idea of color takes central importance in his pieces even over the melody and critics even complained about the seemingly absence of importance in his music. “Debussy’s harmonic vocabulary is also very large. Along with traditional three- and four- note chords, he uses five-note chords with a lush and rich sound. Chord progressions that were highly unorthodox when Debussy wrote them soon came to seem mild and natural. “One must drown out the sense of tonality,” Debussy wrote. Although he never actually abandoned tonality, Debussy weakened it by deliberately avoiding

church progressions that strongly affirm the key. He also drowns tonality by using scales in which the main tone is less emphasized than in major or minor scales. Percussive techniques and pentatonic scales derived from Javanese Gamelan music add an Asian atmosphere along with his most tonally vague scale, the whole-tone scale. It has no special pull from ti to do, since its notes are all the same distance apart and no single notes stands out, creating a blurred, indistinct effect. The pulse in Debussy’s music is sometimes as vague as tonality. “Rhythms cannot be contained within bars,” he wrote. He avoids strong accents that coincide with the bar lines and this rhythmic flexibility reflects the fluid, unaccented quality of the French language” (Roger 440). By weakening and even wiping out the accent Debussy achieved that dreamlike fluidity that is a prime trait of Impressionist music” (Machlis 494). “The form of his compositions are not surprisingly against traditional form such as Sonata-allegro, rather his music melts naturally from one melodic line to the next and one thought or emotion to the next” (Roger 440). “He found no use for heroic styles and heavy bombast, but rather

valued understatement and delicacy. He focused on impressions of nature or dreams figuratively rather than literally and found freedom and spontaneity in all of his music” (Musically Speaking).

 

The Prelude: Context and Style

            “Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun is a “musical evocation of a long “monologue to e recited by an actor” (Thompson 310) by Stephane Mallarme it is a work notorious as much for its languid eroticism as for its allusive and obscure imagery. Its verses describe what may be the daydreams of a young faun, a mythical creature half man

and half goat. This poem is set on a warm afternoon when the faun encounters, or merely imagines, woodland nymphs. He pursues them amorously, and they grant him fleeting kisses and caresses, but no more. Teasing and playful, they flee from the satyr, leaving him to only imagine their charms” (Musically Speaking). “Mallarme’s ambiguity of language and questionability of story evoke an atmosphere of mystique through fictional elements and uncertain events. The natural setting and use of mystical creatures also brings abstract thought to the poem and further clouds the mood. “Debussy intended his music to suggest the successive scenes through which pass the desires and dreams of the faun in the heat of the afternoon” (Roger 442). “Debussy referred to this piece as a “Prelude”- but what he meant was that it was a Prelude to Mallarme’s poem” (Cross 197). “Debussy doesn’t offer a line by line representation of Mallarme’s text, but rather conveys the general character and atmosphere of the poem because of the deliberate uncertainties of the poem’s narrative. Mallarme maintains uncertainty about the realities of the faun’s experiences just as Debussy’s harmonies rarely resolve in a manner to allow assurance ad knowledge of where the music has arrived, or where it is going next. However, Mallarme’s verses abound with musical references most notably that of a faun playing upon a reed flute, which Debussy evokes in the opening measures of his score, which sets a tone of musical ambiguity that informs the entire piece and closely parallels the allusiveness of the poem” (Musically Speaking).     

 

Prelude: Medium and Orchestration

            “Debussy’s works contained highly imaginative orchestration and used unusual combinations of instruments to create remarkable new sounds or tone colors” (Musically

Speaking). The opening of The Prelude uses merely a flute for three full bars, establishing an ambiguous theme throughout. The soft dynamics and low register of the flute adds a mysterious feeling to the piece and an unusual tone color from the beginning. Measure four, beat two introduces two oboes and two clarinets in the same octave as the flute, but they are soon interrupted by a harp glissando. “Two valved horns” (Bacharach 171), a second harp, Violas, violincellos, and basses are also added in measure five to further change the tone color and atmosphere of the piece. By measure eleven the violins are also added and the entire introductory orchestration has played, which consists of three flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, four French horns, two harps, violins, violas, violincellos, and basses. An English horn, two bassoons, and antique cymbals complete the orchestration and complete another tone color later in the piece. Debussy uses Impressionist techniques in this prelude through orchestration and tone color with the use of muted brass, the English horn, the prominent harp, and muted strings. “Debussy uses subtle changes of timbre that are as important as thematic contrasts in earlier music and the sensuous, beautiful sound he sought after is never harsh. The entire orchestra seldom plays together; instead there are brief but frequent instrumental solos. In the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun the woodwinds are especially prominent and used in unusual registers. The strings and brass are often muted and the harp and string tremolos add a shimmer-like atmosphere” (Roger 441). The French horns are muted throughout much of this piece, beginning in measure twenty nine and continuing until the end of the piece. The English horn is frequently used and is played with oboes, bassoons, horns, and strings at one measure and with clarinets and flutes in another measure. The harp has very

prominent and seemingly independent glissandos in the middle of phrases and at different intervals the strings all use mutes to change their normal sounds and changes the tone color again.

 

Prelude: Harmony

            “Debussy’s treatment of harmony was a revolutionary aspect of musical impressionism due to the fact that he tended to use a chord more for its special color and sensuous quality than for its function in a standard harmonic progression” (Roger 441). “The chords were much richer sounding than those which were the basis of Western music for centuries mainly because Debussy added to the normal major and minor triads and even the note on the seventh step of the scale, which added an elusive and tantalizing quality to the harmonies” (Musically Speaking). In measure eleven of the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun Debussy uses this technique with a D Major triad and the seventh note of the scale, a C#, in the melody. “Debussy also employed the ninth note of the scale and created a five note chord, and at other times he even added a sixth step to the traditional three note chord making a four note sixth chord. Adding other notes to the traditional three note chords of the more familiar major and minor triads has the effect of blurring the normal solid feeling that is associated with these chords. This almost hazy quality provides a tangible analogy between Debussy’s music and the canvases of the Impressionistic painters. For example Monet’s paintings have and indistinct quality that makes them wonderfully atmospheric and makes it so they appear to be viewed through some kind of shimmering haze. In the same way, Debussy’s “diminished” (Austin 17)

 

harmonies are relatively indistinct compared to the more concrete major and minor triads of Beethoven or Brahms” (Musically Speaking). Debussy also used other Impressionistic techniques with “successions of dissonant chords freely shifted up and down a scale resulting in parallel chords distinct to his style. Debussy never actually abandoned tonality, he weakened it by deliberately avoiding chord progressions that strongly affect the key. The traditional dominant-tonic cadence is relatively rare in his music and he also drowns tonality by using scales in which the main tone is less emphasized than in major or minor scales” (Roger 431). Debussy also made an enormous impact in music of the early 1900s through the use of the pentatonic and whole tone scales. “The pentatonic scale has only five notes and is closely associated with Javanese and Eastern music” (Musically Speaking), “and is produced by playing five successive black keys on the piano: F#-G#-A#-C#-D#” (Roger 434). “There are several types of pentatonic scales and the opening theme of La Mer uses one example in the melody. Debussy also uses pentatonic chords to add different tone colors and influences of other types of music” (Musically Speaking). “Debussy’s most unusual and tonally vague scale is the whole-tone scale, made up of six different notes each a whole step away from the next (C-D-E-F#-G#-A#-C). Unlike major and minor, the whole-tone scale has no special pull from ti to do, since its tones are all the same distance apart and because no single note stands out, the scale creates a blurred and indistinct effect” (Roger 439). In the opening flute solo of The Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun the melody uses a whole tone harmony for the first two measures of the score, creating an obscure atmosphere Debussy then uses a major triad on beats two and three of the third measure that enhances the harmony to that

of the modern western world. This harmony, however, drops a half-step and the harmonic structure yet again changes to a seventh chord that lacks a fifth. This chord again leaves fleetingly as the harp glissandos the length of its range, adding mystery and suspense to the harmony and characterizes Impressionism even in the very introduction. The French horns entire with reflective whole tone patterns in measure four and the clarinets playing arching whole tone scales in measure twenty nine and on. Javanese gamelan influences can be heard using this whole tone scale technique and Debussy composes many of his pieces with this influence, drawing impressionism into much of his work.

 

Prelude: Melody

Debussy’s music was also revolutionary in the fact that it did not always place the melody as the central importance of the piece. Many times the harmony and tone color

were much more important than a melody easily recognizable and duplicated. Debussy placed more value on the overall feel and atmosphere of the piece and characterized his music as impressionistic. Debussy also renovated music in another melodious technique.

He added women’s voices to his music, but the emphasis wasn’t on the text they were singing. The women didn’t sing words but merely syllables, and this technique turned them into another instrument with a new timbre to add to the tone color and texture of Debussy’s music. Many melodies in the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun are easily recognizable, however, but are still stylistically impressionist because of the keys and scales that they are played in. The opening flute melody is conjunct, meaning that each

 

successive note is played only a few steps apart on the chromatic scale, and connected. The solo playing in this piece is monophonic because only one instrument is playing, such as the flute solos in the beginning and the violin solo near the end of the piece. The entire work on a whole can also be described as conjunct, with only the harp being an exception when it plays very lengthy jumps around its range as in measure thirty three. The piece is also homophonic when more than one instrument is playing because one instrument has the supporting harmony or bass line that carries along the melody. Impressionism also includes strange instrumental techniques to add mood and ambiance that Debussy takes full advantage of. Besides adding voice as an instrument in his work he also used mutes in combination with other instruments to add color and texture. In the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun the strings play on the fingerboard in measure eleven, the harp plays rippling sixteenth notes in measure twenty one, in measure sixty one the strings play the melody while the rest of the instruments play decrescendos on every beat

and generate “panting figures which lend an erotic tone to the woodwinds” (Musically Speaking). In measure seventy seven the harp and the return of the flute melody represent the woodland nymphs teasing the love sick satyr and the laughing melody of the oboes with trills and grace notes four measures later represents the laughing of the nymphs as they leave the satyr alone and mystified. The rustling string tremolos in measure ninety two mimic the rustling of the forest leaves and the sudden calmness and softness of the end of the song symbolizes the sadness and longing of the faun in the end of the poem by Mallarme.

 

Prelude: Form

            The form of Debussy’s music was anything but structured and restricted, rather he “intended it to suggest the successive scenes through which pass the desires and dreams of the faun in the heat of this afternoon” (Musically Speaking). His music never literally interpreted poetry or paintings, but rather imitated the mood and atmosphere and creating spontaneity and freedom. Debussy’s use of dynamics is usually subdued and the music often swells sensuously, only to subside in voluptuous exhaustion, again supporting his flexibility and sense of limitless and openness. The Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun begins with an unaccompanied flute melody containing a vague pulse and tonality releasing a dreamlike and improvisatory atmosphere. This flute melody is heard again and again, faster, slower, and against a variety of lush chords. The fluidity and weightlessness typical of impressionism are typical even in the beginning measures of the piece with this faun melody. Though the form of the prelude may be thought of as A B A, one section blends with the next, creating a naturally flowing feel from one thought of the

faun to another feeling or emotion. The opening flute melody is heard again in measure eleven with added “rustling sonorities from the violins as accompaniments” (Musically Speaking). This line passes through a magical transition and the oboe suddenly has the flute melody in measure fifteen and passes the melody again to the clarinet in measure eighteen. The flute again takes the melody at measure twenty one and concludes the A section. “The music now assumes a more playful and animated manner where the clarinet line is punctuated sharply by the harp and string section. The orchestra extends a sensuous new idea introduces by the oboes in measure fifty three and build it to a

yearning climax. The strings and woodwinds offer a new extension of the melody and the music conveys an increasing erotic longing until measure seventy two when chamber music sonorities are offered with solos for the French horn, clarinet, violin, and oboe. Measure seventy seven returns the A section with a return of the original flute melody. Laughter is heard in the oboe section in measure eighty one and prepares for the ending of the piece and a recurrence of the faun melody as the piece quietly closes and brings exquisitely delicate textures” (Musically Speaking).

 

Conclusion

Claude Debussy’s Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun exemplifies musical Impressionism of the early twentieth century. Not only was it revolutionary itself in provoking the movement in the music world, but it also greatly portrays the beliefs and lifestyles of Impressionists. Compositional techniques such as tone color, harmony, and form are major components of impressionism by not following conventional structured

music of the time but focusing on a general atmosphere and mood. The Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun will forever be characterized with evoking the Impressionist

movement and changing the face of music by focusing on life, nature, and an overall impression. Whether or not music will continue to portray life and nature at its very core is another question, but it will always be a way of self expression for man that can never be taken away.

 

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