Thursday, July 23, 2009

Symbolizing it up

Today we'll be getting into what seems to be the first mention of a French composer on this blog. Claude Debussy is basically known as the founder of the Impressionist movement in music, as much as you can call it a movement - it might have had the least active membership of true impressionists, compared to the Romantic movement or anything earlier. Debussy is really the only truly impressionist composer, because while Ravel was also a follower, his stuff was frequently less atmospheric sounding and could be more impassioned. Lots of 20th century musicians incorporated Impressionism into their work, but it became more synthesized than something that stood alone.
Humorously, impressionism is not really the right word for the movement. Debussy hated being compared to impressionist painters, and was much more inspired by the Symbolists like Stephane Mallarme. However, because the impressionist painters reached wider fame, it seems that the name was easier to have people hang their hat on, so it stuck. Some hallmarks of impressionist music to listen for include the fact that lots of it is supposed to sound ethereal and atmospheric, usually avoiding emotional programmatic works like the Romantics wrote. The movement also was willing to experiment with tonality, using things like a whole note scale and intentional dissonances frequently. Debussy was very inspired by a trip he took to Indonesia, where he was exposed to gamelan players, and he brought some of those unusual rhythms and modes back to Europe in his music.
The pieces I'm featuring today are both some of Debussy's calmest. One is the Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun, which basically is a work intended to sound out the atmosphere of Mallarme's poem The Afternoon of a Faun. It sounds like a lazy, hot midday piece of music, and you get to hear things like his use of the flute to evoke pan pipes. Michael Tilsen Thomas, who is currently one of the most recognized young (well, in a relative sense) conductors in America, has a very good recording of the work on a compilation album with La Mer, which is often considered Debussy's masterpiece, Images, and part of his Petite Suite. The other work, Clair De Lune from his Suite Bergamesque for piano, is equally widespread, and is one of Debussy's most recognizable piano pieces. This one is literally in every Claude Debussy collection imaginable, so it should be very simple to find a decent recording. Both pieces I think are very good examples of relaxing atmospheric pieces, exemplifying lots of the motives of Impressionistic music.

1 comment:

  1. The Passepied has always been my favorite section of the Suite Bergamesque, actually. Debussy's music can be lively as well, and I actually generally find his less "hazy" work to be his most compelling (c.f. "Fetes" from Nocturnes, the String Quartet).