Part Two: The Impressionist Era
Impressionism first originated in Paris in the 1860’s, expanding into other parts of Europe, and eventually to the Americas(3). According to Margaret Samu (2000), the Impressionist Movement first got its name in 1874, when an art critic named Louis Leroy attended Claude Monet’s Impression, Sunrise art exhibition. Leroy wrote that Monet’s work was unfinished, or simply an “impression”(4). Samu further explains that French Impressionism was born when Paris was being rebuilt under Emperor Napoleon III. This was due to parts of the city being destroyed under the Siege of Paris, of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. The Impressionist Movement represents a moment in time (there is no specified ending of Impressionism) of artistic output that is difficult to define or label by art history scholars. This movement transitioned at the turn of the 21st century into the period of art history known as the Modern Era(5).
Machlis and Forney (1999: 481) write about Impressionist painters of this period trying to encapsulate their “first impressions” of the Parisian landscape, a landscape under a state of transformation due to the effects of war. The authors identify key visual artists of this period as: Monet, Pissaro, Manet, Degas, and Renoir. These Impressionist artists would experiment with lighting, by painting identical Parisian scenes or landscapes, but at different times of day. These lighting experiments shifted away from the previous emphasis on the human form of the Romantic era. These experiments looked towards a focus on the effects of lighting, and how light impacted the color blending on canvases achieved by Impressionist painters.
Impressionist painters influenced the musical works of composers, who exhibited a preference towards shorter musical forms that captured first impressions, such as: preludes (introductory music), nocturnes (night music), and arabesques (of ballet). Titles of Impressionist musical works were often inspired by paintings, as Debussy’s famous piece Clair de Lune demonstrates (6). Machlis and Forney (1999:496) write about Maurice Ravel as an important Impressionist who composed the famous ballet Bolero, as well as Igor Stravinsky who composed the famous ballet The Rite of Spring. According to Gergely Fazekas (2008: 321), the first piece of music composed in 1907 that paid direct homage to Claude Debussy, was Kodaly’s piano piece, Meditation sur un motif de Claude Debussy.
What sort of musical features are prominent in Impressionist music? Machlis and Forney (1999: 484) write about Impressionist composers creating music centered in “dissonance”, described as “momentary disturbance”. This technique exposes listeners to new tonal colors, consistent with painters of the time, who introduced viewers to new visual colors in nature through light experimentation. The authors explain that in orchestral music, Impressionist composers experimented with ranges of instruments not previously explored, such as lower ranges of flutes and clarinets, as well as an expanded percussion section. Composers of this era were looking for contrasting musical influences to the well-established “major-minor” tonality, which were developed throughout the preceding Classical and Romantic eras. Impressionist music often features a very different tonal quality that can be based on the use of the whole tone scale(7). Some of the “floating” rhythms characteristic of the Impressionist era will be explored later in the analysis of Debussy’s Prelude, Bruyères: Calme.
Part Three: Debussy and his Compositional Style
Claude Debussy was born in 1862 near Paris, France, in the St. Germain-en-laye area(8). According to Joseph Machlis and Kristine Forney (1999: 488), he died in March 1918 during the bombardment of Paris, eight months before France celebrated victory over the Germans in World War I. Debussy’s funeral procession was conducted on deserted streets as German gunfire destroyed the city of Paris. Jann Pasler (2012: 200) writes about how Debussy as a composer is beloved by art history scholars, identified of critical importance to French culture, even more so after his death. In Debussy’s own words: “French music”, he declared, “is clearness, elegance, simple and natural declamation. French music aims first of all to give pleasure”(9).
Debussy’s first formal education was entering the Paris Conservatory at age 11, where Stanley Sadie (2004: 347) described him as a “rule breaker”: Debussy created his own musical harmonies and dissonances against the advice of his teachers. It was through this spirit of transcendence over norms established in the preceding Classical and Romantic eras, that Debussy composed a piece of music called The Prodigal Son at age 22, winning him the Prix de Rome(10). It was the floating rhythms and varied instrumental colors of his famous poem Prélude à “L’après-midi d’un faune”, resulting in his first masterpiece, considered “thesymphonic first piece of twentieth-century music”(11). Debussy 's opera Pelleas and Melisande premiered April 30, 1902, after nearly 10 years to complete (12). The 1890 's were considered Debussy's most productive period of his career, with this resulting opera providing his first international success.
According to Gergely Fazekas (2008: 329), Debussy’s use of dissonance opened a whole new tonal world of “colouristic effects” in his orchestral compositions. These unusual colors also found in his string quartets, featured short melodies compared to the prose of Nietzcshe. The author writes about the disappointment of some audiences toward Debussy’s unique compositional style: “Instead of volcanic explosions and musical battle scenes he brought only faint pastels” (13). These musical pastels are consistent with Impressionism, where Debussy’s tonal blending of instruments is difficult to isolate the origin of sounds, and the harmonies create “shimmering” effects(14). Debussy’s two pieces for piano and orchestra, Images, and Reflets dans l’eau, have been compared to paintings by Monet and Seurat: “they capture effects of light on water or bells through rustling leaves with washes or rapid ‘dots’ of sound” (15).
Pasler (2012:204) writes about the importance of studying Debussy's train sketches to better understand the problem-solving approaches in his compositional style, evident in elements of continuity and closure. Closure in the Classical and Romantic eras were often represented by chord progressions that end on the tonic chord, signaling the “end” of the piece to the listener. Debussy’s compositions often trail off, as though an unfinished thought, with a musical ellipsis at the end. The abstract qualities of Debussy’s musical works have been compared to Picasso by the writer Zagon, who writes about the air of mystery, considered distorted by some viewers or listeners (as cited in Fazekas, 2008: 333). Debussy’s use of large open chords, expanded ranges of the piano, and tonal blending through the use of piano pedals will be further explored in the musical analysis of his piano piece Prelude, Bruyères: Calme of the next section.
Part Four: Musical Analysis of Debussy’s Prelude Bruyères: Calme I will focus my musical analysis on the use of sustain pedal in Debussy’s solo piano piece Prelude Bruyères: Calme. Acoustic and grand pianos typically have three pedals to be controlled by the foot: the left pedal is the una corda (one string); the middle pedal is the sostenuto; and the pedal on the right is the damper or sustain pedal (Banowetz, 1985: ix). Joseph Banowetz writes on the use of the sustain pedal: “to prolong and connect tones that cannot be held by the fingers alone and to color them."(16) Both purpose are crucial in communicating Debussy's artistic intent of the piece. Banowetz comments about to pedalling according to the Impressionist era: “The pianist must think of the total impression of the piece and strive to hear those sound".(17)
Ira Braus (2000:363) writes about musical phrases as comparable to prose sentences, with an understanding of the pattern of musical notes critical to express musical thought. The floating rhythms of the melody (across staves in some cases) further indicate which harmonies to connect with pedal, and when to separate. One example is bar 34, starting on the second treble clef stave of beat 3, and carried until beat 3 of bar 36 on the first treble clef stave. Bruyères: Calme begins with an opening melodic phrase in bars 1-2. This opening texture is thinnest of the entire piece, played as individual notes by the right hand only. This theme is restated near the end, played one octave higher in bars 44-46, with added harmonies coloring the sound.(18)
The opening theme has an unspecific pedaling indication “con pedale” (with pedal), giving the pianist artistic liberties controlling the damper pedal throughout. The pianist is challenged to blend sounds simultaneously across four octaves of the piano in the same beat of music in places like bars 8-14 (also found in bars: 29, 38, and 44-46). The pianist must depress the pedal before the B-flat grace notes of the bass clef in bar 10(19). These grace notes must be immediately released to free the left hand to move into the treble clef to layer the harmonies. The pianist continues to play melody notes in the right hand above these layered chord tones, until the end of the phrase on beat 2 of bar 14. Debussy revisits this exact phrase again in bars 40-43. The complexity of this musical challenge is evident in Debussy writing for two and three staves interchangeably throughout (piano music is typically written for bass and treble clef only).
The pedaling technique in this piece changes significantly in places such as bars 19-22 and 46-51, where the style instructions and dynamic indicators signal to play very soft, light, and with gentle support(200. In bars 19-22, Debussy has written a harmony range of only 2.5 octaves of the piano, with the lowest tone captured by the pedal as A-flat below middle C. Pedaling for low bass notes of the piano where the strings on a grand piano reverberate at a very different length and frequency than treble notes creates contrasting tonal colors, with the sustain pedal depressed and released according to desired blending.
Throughout this essay, I have demonstrated how color mixing directly on the canvas of Impressionist painters is comparable to the pianist blending colors with the use of piano pedals in Bruyères: Calme. In particular, the phrasing of bars 19-22 and 46-51 are consistent with Impressionism, with Debussy employing ‘lighter pastels’ through color blending of the pedal. Furthermore, Debussy used contrasting registers and widely spaced chords throughout the piece, colored by dynamic, and style indicators consistent with Impressionist music. Bruyères: Calme is an excellent example of Debussy’s contribution to music history, containing compositional elements that inspired Modern Era composers that followed.
1 Nichols, Roger. Preludes II, L131. 2014. https://www.hyperion- records.co.uk/dw.asp?dc=W7744_67920 (accessed May 13, 2019).
2 Machlis, Joseph and Forney, Kristine. “The Enjoyment of Music, Eighth Edition”. New York, USA: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1999.
3 Machlis and Forney, 1999, 481. 4 Samu, 2000, para 2.
5 Machlis and Forney, 1999, 494.
6 Sadie, 2004, 347: Clair de Lune translates to “Moonlight”.
7 Machlis and Forney, 1999, 484: “The whole tone scale is based on whole-tone intervals.”
8 Machlis and Forney, 1999: 487.
9 Machlis and Forney, 1999: 488.
10 Machlis and Forney, 1999: 487.
11 Sadie, 2004, 349: Prelude to “The Afternoon of a Faun”.
12 Machlis and Forney, 1999: 487.
13 Fazekas, 2008: 335.
14 Sadie, 2004, 389: the “shimmering” effects were often repeated notes or a string tremolando.
15 Sadie, 2004, 348: “Images” and “Reflections in the Water”.
16 Banowetz, 1985: 11.
17 Banowetz, 1985: 230.
18 Machlis and Forney, 1999, 13: the interval of an octave is distance between pitches 1-8.
19 Machlis and Forney, 1999, A-11: “Grace note: Ornamental note, often printed in small type and not performed rhythmically.”
20 Linguee French-English Dictionary, 2019: “doux et léger” means soft and light; “Doucement soutenu” means gentle support.