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Can Debussy's Music be accurately described as Impressionist?

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Introduction

Can Debussy's Music be accurately described as Impressionist? 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 Acad�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. ...read more.

Middle

Palmer's view is that Debussy was deeply involved in the popularisation of fin-du-si�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-si�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. He notes that Debussy rarely employs typical water motifs. ...read more.

Conclusion

Tonal relationships are also used to link adjacent pr�ludes together. Roberts instructs performers of the Pr�ludes to hold the final B-flat 'taut [...] until the low B-flat of "Voiles" in measure 5,' in order to progress smoothly from one to the other. The proceeding pr�lude ('La vent dans la plaine') features what could be interpreted as a B-flat pedal note, which acts as the tonic of the pentatonic series.14 Roberts also argues that the downward movement to A Minor (viewed by Schmitz as a temporary calm, a change in the wind) is a precedent for the initial A Major tonality of 'Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l'air du soir'.15 16 Clearly, tonal relationships between pr�ludes are used to reinforce similarities in subject matter, further weakening the notion that Debussy's music can be summarised by the label of Impressionism. The deep harmonic language used by Debussy ensures that the Pr�ludes have genuine depth and complexity; they are much more substantial than mere interpretations. Terming Debussy's music as Impressionist also diminishes the importance of other influences. Debussy also showed a great amount of interest in Symbolism; many of his works are based on or named after Symbolist poetry, such as the Pr�lude � l'Apr�s-midi d'un Faune (1894), which shares its name with one of Mallarm�'s most well-known works. ...read more.

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