Claude Debussy is arguably the most famous composer to be associated with the style of Impressionism. Many of his works are compared, often favourably, to the works of Impressionist painters such as Monet. Yet Debussy himself frequently denied Impressionism’s influence upon his works. In fact, it is clear he regarded it as a term of insult, as, apparently, did the Acadi?? mie des Beaux-arts, in their report on Printemps (1887): Monsieur Debussy.
.. has a pronounced tendency – too pronounced – towards an exploration of the strange.
One has the feeling of musical colour exaggerated to the point where it causes the composer to forget the importance of precise construction and form. It is strongly to be hoped that he will guard against this vague impressionism, which is one of the most dangerous enemies of truth in works of art. Incidentally, this was the first time that the term ‘impressionism’ was used to describe a musical work. 1 Nonetheless, we must be wary of taking such an insult as the truth, even if it originates from such an influential institution.
Before determining how the term Impressionism could be applied, if at all, to Debussy’s music, we must first ascertain exactly what it is. Impressionism as a visual art form grew out of a frustration with traditional 19th Century styles of painting, resulting in vivid, colourful works where the artist’s interpretation of the subject have had great influence upon the final result, with a particular focus on nature in all its forms rather than more traditional subjects.Oscar Thompson, cited in Schmitz, states that the aim of Impressionism is ‘to mirror not the object but the emotional reaction to the object; to interpret a fugitive impression rather than to seize upon and fix the permanent reality’. 2 Palmer argues that an important focus of Impressionistic works is their tendency to focus on matter which can distort the subject, obvious examples being light, mist and water. 3 In musical works, features that could be viewed as Impressionistic include excessive instrumental colour, non-functional or decorative harmony, and devices that are intended to vividly portray the subject matter.
However, whilst many of these are not present, or less commonly used, in earlier music, none of them can be linked specifically to the rise of Impressionism; it is but one of the artistic movements that originated in the mid-nineteenth century. Musical scholars have varied views on the extent to which Debussy’s music was Impressionistic. Debussy himself was very scathing towards such suggestions. In a letter to Jacques Durand in 1908, he stated ‘I am trying to do “something different” – in a way, realities – what the imbeciles call “impressionism,” ‘.4 Paul Roberts seems to concur with this view; he argues that critics such as the Acadi?? mie des Beaux-arts were too firmly conditioned to ‘ideal beauty and historical, or mythological, subject matter’ to recognise the legitimacy of works focused on the mundane and the realistic. 5 Could the usage of the term could be dismissed as ignorance, or an attempt to resist the development of musical form beyond traditional approaches? Schmitz, a scholar who knew Debussy personally, is a staunch defender of the composer’s rejection of the term.
He states that Wagnerian influences in Paris caused the label to be applied in a thoughtless fashion that does little justice to the actual music, and that this has ultimately resulted in poor-quality, ill-informed performances of Debussy’s works. Furthermore, he argues that the perceived legitimacy of the label is skewed because of later efforts to link techniques employed by Debussy (such as modality, pentatonism and pedal-points) to Impressionism itself; he views such practices as desperate attempts to link the two ‘in foolproof fashion’.6 Other researchers are less cynical. Christopher Palmer has no reservations in calling Debussy an Impressionist, even declaring him the Impressionistic painters’ musical figurehead. He highlights the fact that, from his early years onwards, he associated not with musicians but with painters and poets who resided in Paris, which at that time was considered the centre of the world and a place of great artistic and cultural influence. Palmer’s view is that Debussy was deeply involved in the popularisation of fin-du-sii??cle post-romantic forms of art, and that his preoccupations were similar to those of the Impressionists with regards to the yearning for freedom of expression and the admiration of natural phenomena.
7 However, Palmer’s viewpoint fails to acknowledge Debussy’s dislike of the term; it is hard to believe that someone supposedly at the foreground of an artistic movement would so fiercely and publicly reject any suggestion that his music was associated with it. In spite of arguments for or against Debussy’s associations with the Impressionist movement, it is important to consider the music itself.Many of his works have suggested links to Impressionism in their titles, particularly those based on water. La mer (1905), adorned with a print of Hokusai’s ‘The hollow of the wave off Kanagawa’ which was known to be admired by Monet, shows a clear link with the Exoticist preoccupations of Impressionism. 8 9 Simon Tresize argues that whilst there are pre-fin-du-sii?? cle compositions ‘in celebration of the sea and other watery phenomena’, water is rarely the main subject as it is with Debussy’s most famous orchestral work.