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Debussys Works, Inspired by Impressionist Poetry and Art

Teresa Baszak
Music 2711G
Dr. Ansari
March 22, 2016

After the romantic era, there was a shift in the way those in the arts approached their

craft. Many desired to break from romanticism in many The impressionist movement of this

time period centuries explored through numerous mediumswritten word, visual arts, and music

but is perhaps most notably recognized in the works of impressionist era giant, Claude

Debussy. He, along with other writers and painters, defined the era through their works

Debussy specifically though his compositions. It is therefore seen as a period characterized by its

desire to create art that communicated an overall mood or feeling. This contrasted the popular

idea of realism in visual arts and romanticisms focus on individual feeling in music.

Impressionism was art simply for arts sakenot necessarily to explore societal commentary, but

to effectively capture and communicate the emotion of a specific scene. Louis Laloy, Debussys

biographer, concisely describes this approach and its relation to visual art saying his music was

purely auditory, just as impressionist painting is completely visual1. In addition to composers,

writers and visual artists having a similar mentality in the goals of their work, there was also

much encouragement for there to be events where it was possible to crossover multiple

mediums2. Shows combining multiple mediums of impressionist art were common, and

encouraged, to create a sense of comradery between participants in the impressionist movement.

With such a connection, it is no surprise that one may draw many similarities to the mediums of

visual arts and writing in music from the impressionist movement. In this essay I will prove the

similarities in the aesthetic qualities of the compositions of Debussy and impressionist visual art

and poetry, as well as the inspiration Debussy was able to derive from these mediums.

The similarities in aesthetic when comparing Debussys compositions and impressionist

visual become apparent when one looks at the defining factors of an impressionist painting. This

1 Louis Laloy, Claude Debussy (Paris: Les Bibliophiles Fantaisistes, 1909), p. 51.
2 Eric Frederick Jensen, Debussy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 120.

style is delineated by its use of blurred, hurried-looking brushstrokes, which create muted and

fogged scenes. These paintings did not provide an especially realistic portrayal of the the realism

or detail of images they depicted, but effectively captured the emotion one would feel if

observing the scene first hand. Impressionist artists were also very interested in capturing

natural scenesfrequently depicting the outdoors, using natural lighting ,and painting events as

they occurred simultaneously. To communicate the emotion of a natural scene was the goal of an

impressionist artist. Finally, impressionism was often perceived as an abandonments of

traditional structure3. Naturally one can see these quality translated into Debussys works.

Debussys compositions were often based on scenes of the natural world, intending to convey

some suggestion of landscape4. He chose to concentrate on individual melodic lines, how they

sounded when put together, and the atmosphere they created. This was contrary to the traditional

desire to focus on particular chord progression. He also focused on the blend of the timbre of his

instrumentation, often achieving a seamless quality, not unlike the blurred effect favoured in

impressionist art. Furthermore, he made the decision to break away from normal musical

conventions in his compositions, particularly in his choice to nearly abandon having specific

forms and structures in his pieces.

A specific example of the translation of impressionist art into Debussys music can be

seen through his relationship with James McNeill Whistlers painting series nocturnes.

Whistler was an artist who explored both realism and impressionism, and his series Nocturnes is

an example of his experimentation with impressionist styles. An example of one of the paintings

being Nocturne: Blue and SilverBattersea Reach (Fig. 1). The painting is part of a series

which depicts somber night scenes, this one showing a view of the Thames River5. Debussy took

3 Jensen, Debussy, 124

4 A. Eaglefield-Hull, ed., A Dictionary of Modern Music and Musicians (London: J. M. Dent, 1924)
5 Images: Whistler and Music,

direct inspiration from this set, creating his own workNocturnesa set of three pieces entitled

Nuages, Ftes, and Sirnes. The inspiration he took from the paintings is most notable in the

actual titling of his set of pieces. This

set, and the individual pieces, do not

feature the traditional form of a

nocturne, yet bear the title. This

firstly speaks to Debussys

abandonment of concrete form in

many of his works, just as Whistler

chose to abandon the traditional Fig. 1. James McNeill Whistler, Nocturne: Blue
and SilverBattersea Reach. 1870-1875, Oil on
techniques of realism for the more canvas. The Smithsonians Museum of Asian
Art, Washington.
blurred and emotional forms of

impressionism. This also conveys the extent of the inspiration Debussys was able to draw from

this piece. His choice to name his set after this specific painting series therefore speaks volumes

for the amount of impact it had on him. Upon listening to Debussys set, one is also able to draw

parallels between the compositions and paintings, particularly in Nuages. In this piece, there is a

seamless blend of timbres, which absolutely reflects the serene nighttime scene that is created

through Whistlers calm and hazy image. Debussy seemed to draw from techniques in visual

arts and apply them in his own musical fashion. His choices to abandon strict forms and work

with seamless and blurred textures in his works demonstrates the profound influence on

impressionist visual arts on his own work.

While Debussy had a great appreciation for visual arts he also adoredperhaps even

more so than artpoetry. Form the time he was in the Paris Conservatoire onward he was an

avid consumer of many facets of literature, with a particular interest in poetry. Debussy was

known to spend much of his time with poets as well, being part of an elite circle where he was a

musician among non-musicians6. He could therefore observe the poets craft objectively, and

derive inspirations from them for his works. Poetry of the impressionist era called symbolist

poetrylike art and music, was focused on the creation of atmosphere as opposed to coherency.

A beloved poet of Debussy, Paul Verlaine, described a poets fascination with this idea saying,

Nothing is dearer to the poet than the gray song/ In which the vague and the precise meet7.

Symbolist poets took the approach of many artists of this era, and focused on writing poetry for

the way it looked on a page and the way it sounded when spoken. This method, of course, can be

seen in Debussys works through his compositional process. He often chose to create his pieces

based on what he believed sounded beautiful, disregarding strict theoretical ideals. Apart from

the stylistic similarities, the influence of poetry can also be seen more directly in Debussys art

through his engagement of poetry in the setting of many of his songs. He set many of Verlaines

poems to music, specifically from Verlaines Ftes Galantes. The poetry was enjoyable to set

because of its already musical quality and otherworldliness, which complemented Debussys

equally dreamy quality in his style. He also used a similar style in titling his compositions, to

that of poets in respect to their poems8. Like many poem titles, which were used to give direction

to their atmospheric quality, his piece titles brought a programmatic element to his pieces,

providing an image to pair with the air his music created. Debussys music mimics symbolist

style in its evocation a imagery that pertains to magic, dreams, and all things mythical, and

6 Arthur B. Wenk, Claude Debussy and Twentieth-Century Music (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1983), 9.
7 Wenk, Claude Debussy and Twentieth-Century Music, 8.
8 Jensen, Debussy, 127

through its appeal to the imagination9. Thus, the influence of symbolist poetry is evident in the

compositions of Debussy.

Despite his own desires to be independent from the impressionist label, Debussy can

certainly be considered a musical giant in this era, practically building a name for this style of

music. His compositional techniques were fresh when compared to those of the past, with his

move from a strict tonal centre, chord progression and rigid employment of forms, seamless

blend of timbres, and imaginative subject matter. Upon closer speculation, it is evident that these

ideas did not occur uninspired. Debussys close connection of other forms of impressionist art

and symbolist poetry translated into the innovation of his compositions. All three mediums were

created with a similar goal in mind, which was to communicate the emotion of a particular scene,

rather than capture it in detail. When compared to impressionist art, both mediums employ the

use of a muted and blurred textureDebussy in the timbre of his instruments, and artists with

their use of brushstrokes and colour palettes. From symbolist poetry, Debussy and symbolist

poets works are similar in both their imaginative and whimsical quality in content, and well in

their own sound. Consequently, this demonstrates the profound influence of impressionist visual

arts and symbolist poetry on Debussys works.

Works Cited

Callen, Anthea. The Art of Impressionism. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2000.

Jarocinski, Stefan. Debussy: Impressionism and Symbolism. London: Ernst Eulenberg Ltd, 1976.

Jensen, Eric Frederick. Debussy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014

9 Jensen, Debussy, 127.

Smith, Richard Langham. "Debussy and the Art of Cinema." Music & Letters 54, no. 1
(January 1973): 61-70.

The Smithsonians Museum of Asian Art.


Wenk, Arthur B. Claude Debussy and Twentieth Century Music. Boston: Twayne
Publishers, 1983

Zukerman, Joseph. "Debussy." The American Scholar 14, no. 3 (1945): 335-40.