Saturday, October 3, 2009

"Not even the expression of feeling; it's the feeling itself." (Debussy on music)

In preparation for the Chorale's opening concert featuring Debussy's Trois Chansons as its centerpiece, I have been reading and musing over his fantastic collection of letters. The quotations are from the English edition translated and edited by Francois Lesure and Roger Nichols (Harvard). I have also found Leon Botstein's central essay in the Bard Music Festival companion book, Debussy and His World (Princeton) particularly illuminating where Debussy and impressionism intersect. Below are some musings on the subject interspersed with Debussy in his own words.

I believe with all my heart that music remains for all time the finest means of expression we have...It would be enough if music could make people listen…

Debussy's first orchestral masterpiece, the "Prelude to the afternoon of a faun" certainly made people listen. And started a literal sea-change in music by presaging its composers journey towards defining not only a style (impressionism) or a school (Debussyism) but creating a wave whose force--if imperceptible from outside--continues to affect and influence composers. His keen attentiveness to painting and poetry played no small part in this process.

He described music "as a dream from which the veils have been lifted." He alluded to this quality, and tellingly, the means he would employ from the "Prelude" forward to get to the essence of his expressive music--by creating impressions. it perhaps the dream left over at the bottom of the faun’s flute?
To be more precise, it is the general impression of the poem

The birth of "musical impressionism" would not have been possible had its progenitor, Debussy, not had something against which to react. That something was the behemoth of Wagnerian music drama. I mused on Wagner in August while in residence at the Bard Music Festival. Critics of Wagner (and Debussy was certainly one, AFTER he exorcised the huge sway Wagner held over him early in his career) dismiss his hyper-emotional music as representational, merely descriptive and emotionally manipulative. While this is a gross oversimplification, the thread from Wagnerian leitmotif to B+ Hollywood film music is a clearer one than Wagnerians might like to admit.

And though Wagner often set mythical &/or supernatural subjects in his operas, he sought to write music that expressed real emotion. Such representational art has an agenda via the manipulativeness of a prescribed result or affect—via realistic description the listener/viewer is meant to feel a specific emotion the artist has sought to express. (The prelude to Tristan und Isolde is meant to express the unquenchable desire of the protagonists, simply put. Wagner’s “unending melody” is employed to achieve that specific, affective—and manipulative— end).

The painters associated with impressionism--and others on the outside of the movement, Turner & Whistler chief among them--attempted to get at the essence of an image or even more fundamentally, to get at the essence of color and light by capturing impressions of their subjects and attempting to depict a moment in time.

Debussy described music as “rhythmicized time” and one could say impressionist art is time represented (on canvas): the viscous flow of blurred images is analogous to time’s perpetual motion.

In these paintings the blurred textures give the canvases a fluid sense of motion—even the still lifes are not still! And if not in motion, they appear to have a presence (their essence?) that is multi-dimensional.

Of the essences of color and light, Debussy connected his impressionist Nocturnes to Whistler's studies of the same name:

It’s an experiment in finding the different combinations possible inside a single color, as a painter might make a study in grey, for example...

To me, this is the essential--in every sense--difference between Wagnerian realism and Debussy's impressionism.

By experimenting with those combinations that turned "rhythmicized time" into "impressions" of a poem or a color or a landscape, Debussy wrote music that was

not even the expression of feeling; it’s the feeling itself.

For Debussy the essence of such art was not easily achieved. His advice to budding artists is valuable regardless of what style or school one follows.

Time spent carefully creating the atmosphere in which a work of art must move is never wasted…one must never be in a hurry to write things down. One must allow the complex play of ideas free rein.

Elsewhere, with typical ironic detachment, he hits on another essential difference that gets at the distance between the objective realism of impressionism versus the subjective emotionalism of much realistic art.

…memory is a superior faculty, because you can pick from it the emotions you need.

Still more good advice for the young composer/painter/poet (and it is no coincidence that Debussy's advice is applicable to each genre--I have found the more I appreciate the paintings and the poetry from Debussy's circles, the more I appreciate the music. I believe the same could be said from any angle of this artistic triangle.)

…find the perfect expression for an idea and add only as much decoration as is absolutely necessary…

Though artists from Turner to Cezanne to Monet (and beyond) do not “look” realistic, they are arguably truer to life for the fluid, “impressionist” means used to evoke and embody their subjects. Turner’s Burning of the House of Parliament is far more effective an apocalyptic canvas for being blurred—the colors literally bleeding from one part of the canvas to the next—than a “realist” portrait of the destructive flames over the Thames. By embodying—enacting, performing, being—the affect, the overall effect is more immediate and more authentic than were said affect merely expressed via “natural” or “realistic” depiction.

Paradoxically, impressionism is therefore more realistic than realism.


katrina and the king said...

what an interesting blog and great idea! I was in choir for over 13 years so it was an honor to photograph your concert in Williamsburg the other day-traffic and everything! :) You can see a sneak peak at the photos here: and make sure to check back for more. Thank-You for your music, Katrina King. A Sense Of Place Photography, Owner.

Melissa said...

You won't get any argument from me.

BTW, my sophomore theory teacher (the great flautist Thomas Howell and eminent crazy person) made us do a harmonic analysis of the first page of the Prelude from Tristan und Isolde. And by first page I mean of the piano score. I aced it. *simper*