Intimate Impressionism In Music
It was originally a term of derision. When the art critic Louis Leroy published his satiric review of a newly made painting by Claude Monet, a work the artist titled “Impression: Sunrise,” he wrote:
“Impression I was certain of it. I was just telling myself that, since I was impressed, there had to be some impression in it — and what freedom, what ease of workmanship! A preliminary drawing for a wallpaper pattern is more finished than this seascape.....”
Mary Morton, head of the department of French paintings at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., and the one responsible for the Intimate Impressionism exhibit currently hanging at San Antonio's McNay Art Museum, acknowledges that there was a certain sketchiness to the work first displayed in the famous 1874 exhibition of works by Monet, Degas, Renoir, Pissarro and several dozen more artists whose work was generally shunned by the more traditional galleries of the time.
In fact, the movement in art which we now know as Impressionism, sought to discard those elements of the romantic tradition which they believed had hardened into academic formulas. According to Dr. William Chiego, director of the McNay, says these upstarts upended the priorities of the traditional art world.
“Like so many of these artists who did still lifes in the 19th century, they were looking back at earlier masters who gave the still lifes a gravity and weight and seriousness that was not commonly given,” Chiego explains. “The impressionists wanted to paint real people, real landscapes, and real things.”
As is ever the case, the musicians arrived late to the party, and ended up staying longer than anyone else. When Claude Debussy finished his landmark musical essay, “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” it was already 1894. The painters' impressionism was already two decades old, as musical impressionism was only beginning to emerge. Ironically, Debussy's masterpieces, as with many of the other masterworks of impressionist music, were not so much a reaction to the innovations of Monet, Manet, Pissaro, and Renoir, as a response to the Symbolist Poets, writers such as Charles Baudelaire, StephaneMallarme, and Paul Verlaine. In a sense, Debussy's “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” was the answer to the poet Mallarme's concern that his poem “Afternoon of a Faun” was less than complete. Wrote Mallarme: “I have found an intimate and peculiar manner of depicting and setting down very fugitive impressions. What is frightening is that all these impressions are required to be woven together as in a symphony.”
Although not a symphony, Debussy's “Prelude” was exactly what Mallarme had in mind.
This is not without considerable irony. Impressionism in music was born as composers began to feel that the old way of writing music, based upon the major scale, had reached the end of its rein. Debussy felt that music needed to explore the new scales: whole tone scales, pentatonic scales, or even the modal scales of the ancient Greeks. This meant rejecting the romantic traditions of Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms and Wagner. But according to Mary Morton, the impressionist painters listened to a lot of music, much of it by the Romantic masters.
“One thing that’s happening is that these artists we’re talking about, most of them were very involved in the music scene,” Morton says. “They weren’t making music, most of them, but they were avidly listening… to mostly German symphonic music… Beethoven and Wagner were extraordinarily popular at the time.”
One thing for sure is that the four-part series “Intimate Impressionism on KPAC” is a response to the Mary Morton-curated exhibition “Intimate Impressionism” now on display at the McNay Art Museum. The radio series begins on Friday, October 17 at 7 p.m. on KPAC 88.3 FM and KTXI 90.1 FM.
“See” great art through the music of the great French impressionists, Debussy and Ravel. We will also hear music by many disciples of the French school, composers such as the American Charles Tomlinson Griffes, Mexican composers Manuel Ponce and Eugenio Toussaint, the revolutionary Russian Modest Mussorgsky, and Canadian Colin McPhee, who shared Debussy's fascination with the Gamelan Orchestras of Java. We will also enjoy the artistic commentary of Dr. William Chiego and Mary Morton, along with the musical perspective of composer and UTSA faculty member, Dr. James Scott Balentine.
Paul Verlaine extends this wonderfully shaded invitation:
“For we desire above all – nuance,
Not color but half-shades!
Ah! nuance alone unites
Dream with dream and flute with horn.”