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Debussy; 20th Century Impressionism

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 2954 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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An exploration of late 19th and early 20th Century Impressionism focusing on two works of Debussy

This project is going to focus on the development of Impressionism and how it progressed; showing how it emerged into Impressionistic music, the specific instruments impressionistic composers used and it will also examine how composers created an impressionistic effect in their works. The major composer that will be discussed is Debussy along with his two famous works, En Bateau and La Mer.

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Impressionism developed during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. There wasn’t an exact date when this movement began, but in the years between 1867 and 1886 a group of artists shared a set of related techniques towards their works, creating impressionist paintings. One characteristic of Impressionism was to include short and thick strokes of paint to capture the outline of the subject rather than its details, giving the painting a blurry effect. To create a vibrant surface the artists mixed the colours as little as possible and when darker tones were needed, the artist mixed complementary colours together. In most Impressionist paintings the use of black paint is avoided as this would define an object more clearly with it being such a solid colour. Artists placed wet paint into wet paint without waiting for previously applied paint to dry; this produces softer edges and an assortment of strange colours. Claude Monet, Pierre Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley, Berthe Morisot, Armand Guillaumin and Frédéric Bazille, were the main Impressionist painters who worked together and influenced each other. During the early 1870s there were other artists who painted in an Impressionist style, including Edgar Degas and Paul Cézanne.

Édouard Manet was an established painter and in the 1860s his work greatly influenced Monet along with the others of the group. His work became the leader in Impressionist work in which the importance of the subject was minimized and more attention was paid to the artist’s use of colour, tone and texture. The depth of the subject was minimized so that the viewer would look at the surface patterns and the mixture of colours rather than into the three-dimensional object.

In the late 1860s Monet, Pisarro, Renoir and others began to paint landscapes and river scenes in which they tried to objectively record the colours and forms of objects as they appeared in natural light at a given time. This selection of artists discarded the traditional landscape palette of greens, browns and greys and instead chose to paint in sunnier, brighter colours.

In 1874 the official Salon of the French Academy finally agreed to let ‘the group’ hold an art show. Monet’s painting ‘Impression: Sunrise’ earned them the name ‘Impressionists’ from the journalist Louis Leroy who wrote for the French magazine Le Charivari in 1874. Overall they held seven succeeding shows, the last in 1886. During that time they all continued to develop their own personal and individual styles.

During this Impressionistic period, literature also became famous and many writers adopted a style that relied on relations. Many writers have tried to incorporate Impressionism into their novels, poems and other literary works, Impressionist literature includes a number of categories, especially symbolism; its chief writers being Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Rimbaud, Verlaine and Laforgue. In Impressionistic literature authors tend to focus more on the character’s mental life such as their Impressions, feelings, sensations and emotions, rather than trying to interpret them. In addition, Impressionism in music works similarly to create expressive impressions and not to draw clear pictures. Impressionism occurred as a reaction to 19th century Romanticism. The music from this period aims to create a mood and atmosphere and is not intended to describe anything. This is done through almost every aspect of music. Furthermore, there became a dramatic change in the scale system, as a replacement for using the usual major and minor keys, Impressionist music tended to use more dissonant and more uncommon scales such as the whole tone scale. In addition to this change, Impressionist composers preferred to use short forms such as the nocturne, arabesque and prelude, instead of the long forms of music such as the symphony and concerto.

2. The Great Wave of Kanagawa.

The Great Wave of Kanagawa is a famous woodblock print by the Japanese artist Hokusai. Published in 1832, this piece is one of Hokusai’s most famous works and was the first in his series, 36 Views of Mount Fuji. The picture shows an enormous wave breaking over into spray, foam and smaller waves threatening boats in the Japanese region of Kanagawa. It is an image of terror, elegance and power, simultaneously through Hokusai’s perspective. Mount Fuji can be seen in the background of this print along with the other 35 prints, hence the name ’36 Views of Mount Fuji’. The wave is intended to be a normal ocean wave created by the wind instead of a tsunami. Like the other prints in the series, it depicts the area around Mount Fuji under destructive conditions. A study on Hokusai’s work was undertaken in 1896, Edmond de Goncourt writes, “The design for The Wave is a deified version of the sea made by a painter who lived in a religious terror of the overwhelming sea surrounding his country on all sides; it is a design which is impressive by the sudden anger of its leap into the sky, by the deep blue of the transparent inner side of its curve, by the splitting of its crest which is thus scattered into a shower of tiny drops having the shape of animals’ claws.”[*]

The Great Wave inspired the logo of Quiksilver, the surf wear and clothing manufacturer.

Hokusai’s painting shows a wave breaking over into spray, foam, and smaller waves. It is an image of terror, elegance, and awesome power, simultaneously through Hokusai’s usage of perspective. In a study of Hokusai’s work in 1896, Edmond de Goncourt writes,

“The design for The Wave is a deified version of the sea made by a painter who lived in a religious terror of the overwhelming sea surrounding his country on all sides; it is a design which is impressive by the sudden anger of its leap into the sky, by the deep blue of the transparent inner side of its curve, by the splitting of its crest which is thus scattered into a shower of tiny drops having the shape of animals’ claws.”

This vivid yet suggestive imagery is very well suited to the spirit of Debussy’s works. It is seen in Debussy’s view of nature, which is typically vague, dreamy, with a type of “luminosity.” La Mer is an obvious example and will be dealt with further on in the paper.

Drawing from his exposure to Impressionism in painting, Debussy attempted to recreate the subtle, nuances in shading, light which made this new type of artform unique. Starting with l’Apres-midi d’un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun) impressionistic imagery and style becomes characteristic of Debussy’s works. This type of imagery can also be found in the symbolist movement of the time in literature which was also among the major influences upon Debussy.

I will talk about this piece of art work and how it links to Debussy’s La Mer.

3. Impressions: Sunrise.

This section will be similar to the second topic but just writing about a different work of art and how it links to Debussy’s En Bateau.

4. Claude Debussy.

This section will include a lot of facts about Debussy’s life, where he grew up etc. along with a list of his impressionist works. I will also mention how Debussy creates the ‘blurry’ image he does in his pieces.

5. Impressionism in Music.

I will be talking about how impressionism grew from art to music and how they now both link together.

6. Impressionistic Composers.

This section will include slight information on other impressionistic composers and how they used different ways of creating impressionistic pieces.

7. Impressionistic Instruments.

woodwind, strings, harp, piano, small chamber ensembles

This will be a very small section about the main instruments that were used in impressionistic music.

8. 19th Century Impressionism

I will go into a lot more depth about Debussy’s En Bateau and comment on impressionism in the 19th Century.

9. Development of Impressionism in the 20th Century.

I will write about the development of impressionism from the 19th century to the 20th century. I will also go into more detail about Debussy’s La Mer.


1885 – 1910

Impressionism was an important musical style that emerged during the early 20th century. The whole idea started with French painters. Their paintings were blurry and fuzzy. There are no clean, hard outlines or edges or shapes. The same is true with music of this period. The sounds were “painted” using richly colored harmonies.

Impressionistic music achieves it’s unique sound by using:

1. Bitonality. This means two different harmonies at once. This technique creates fuzzy harmonies. Traditional harmonic progressions are clean and straightforward, while Impressionistic harmonies are fuzzy. Think of music written in two different keys at the same time. A good example of this is Debussy’s piano piece, La Puerta Del Vina. The right hand plays in one key, the left hand in another key. Played together, they create bitonality.

2. Fuzzy chords. Take lots of notes and pile them up, one on top of another, and you can get some pretty interesting sounds. Listen to Debussy’s Claire de lune.

3. Modes. These are special scales that have been around for a long time. They were used by composers until about the time of the Renaissance. A wonderful piece by Debussy that is based entirely on modes is Fetes (Festival). What an incredible piece! The Dorian mode is one of the scales that is used in this piece. You can be play it on the piano by starting on D and playing up eight notes on the white keys.

4. New sounds that suggest exotic locations–composers like Maurice Ravel borrowed ideas from places like Spain, the Orient, Greece, and jazz from America to “paint” these sounds into their music. Bolero is an excellent example of this new, exotic sound. Another wonderful example of Impressionistic music with a Spanish flavor is Ravel’s piano piece, Albarado del Gracioso.

5. Pentatonic scales. These are scales with just 5 notes. Play just the black keys on a piano and you have this simple, short scale. This old scale has been around for a long time. Music of China and the American Indian use this scale. Debussy’s Girl With the Flaxen Hair is a good example of a piece based on this 5-tone scale.

6. Whole tone scale. This is a scale with no half steps. Listen to L’isle joyeuse (Island of Pleasure) by Claude Debussy.

This is done through almost every aspect of music: melody, harmony, color, rhythm, and form. Melodies tend to be short in nature, often repeated in different contexts to give different moods. In terms of color (see also chromaticism), notes are often drawn from scale systems other than the traditional major and minor. These include pentatonic, whole-tone, or other exotic scales (for example, Debussy, a major figure of impressionism, was influenced by asian music). The use (or misuse, as some critics might say) of harmony was a major part of impressionism. Impressionists did not use chords in the traditional way. For nearly the entire history of Western music, chords had been used to build and relieve tension, thus giving the music a sense of direction. A nice example to use here is Mozart’s famous Sonata in A, K.331. You can defininitely hear the harmonies constantly leading the music forward until it finally reaches resolution on the final note.

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Now to provide an example of impressionism, we have “L’îsle Joyeuse” (“The Island of Joy”) by Claude Debussy. This is actually a musical interpretation of the painting “The Embarkation for Cythera” by Jean-Antoine Watteau. Both the painting and the piece tell the story of a journey to the mythical island of Cythera, an ideal place of love and beauty. The opening trills suggest the excited anticipation of the travelers; a middle section depicts them floating over the water; their arrival is heralded by jubilant trumpeting; and their ecstatic joy in realizing their destination provides a climactic finish. The chords in this piece sometimes serve no harmonic purpose in the traditional sense; these chords set the joyful “color” and mood of the piece, and are no longer exclusively used to build and release tension. Sometimes the melody isn’t very clear, but rather implied… we only get an impression of it.

Impressionism marked the first major steps into the Debussy and Maurice Ravel. An especially noteworthy aspect of impressionism was the weakening of the concept of tonality. Even though impressionist music was still tonal in nature, the “non-functional” chords paved the way for the later likes of Schoenberg, and others to do away with tonality altogether (this is discussed further on the page dealing with atonalism.)



Palmer, Christopher (1973) Impressionism in Music, London, Hutchinson & Co.

* This source will be good for my section on ‘Impressionism in Music’ as it outlines a transitional movement from art through to music. It also analyses the essentials of musical impressionism in Debussy’s mature style, which is perfect for my whole project.

Cummings, David (1995) The Hutchinson Encyclopaedia of Music, Oxford, Helicon.

· This source shows a short but clear definition of Impressionism. It mentions how impressionism firstly belonged to art and how Debussy became known as the leader of the movement.


Encyclopaedia Britannica 2004 Ultimate Reference CD-ROM.

· This is a good source for my first section on ‘Impressionism’, this source includes a lot of information about impressionist artists and how they created their paintings. It also explains how Debussy was influenced by impressionist painters.



* This source explains about Impressionism but talks about what impressionist music does not include and what makes it different. This source also provides an example of how music and art can link together. It shows a musical interpretation of the painting “The Embarkation for Cythera”. http://au.encarta.msn.com/encyclopedia_781531905/Impressionism_(music).html

· This source is good as it explains what new devices Debussy had inputted into his music. http://www.tcd.ie/Music/JF%20History/debussy.html

· This source provides some information about Debussy’s La Mer, one of the pieces I will be writing about. It also talks about impressionistic influences in the music of Debussy. http://www.classical.net/music/comp.lst/works/debussy/lamer.php

· This is a good source as it explains about the piece La Mer in a lot of detail. http://www.lycos.com/info/claude-debussy–music.html?page=3

· This source provides a small bit of information about Debussy and what he thought about Impressionism, it also explains how he displayed his impressionistic music. http://www.classicalarchives.com/bios/debussy_bio.html

· This source provides a full biography of Debussy which will be needed for my project, impressionism is also mentioned in this source. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impressionist_music 07/12/08

· This source has a small section on the instruments used in impressionistic music, I will then be able to write about how these instruments give the effect that they do in both of Debussy’s works.


Debussy, La Mer.

· This is the full score of Debussy’s La mer.

The Great Piano Works of Claude Debussy.

· This source includes En Bateau, the other piece I will be writing about. It also includes some information about Debussy’s life.


“I am trying to do ‘something different’- in a way realities- what the imbeciles call `impressionism’ is a term which is as poorly used as possible, particularly by art critics.”

– This is what Debussy said about his impressionistic works in a letter of March, 1908.

“The design for The Wave is a deified version of the sea made by a painter who lived in a religious terror of the overwhelming sea surrounding his country on all sides; it is a design which is impressive by the sudden anger of its leap into the sky, by the deep blue of the transparent inner side of its curve, by the splitting of its crest which is thus scattered into a shower of tiny drops having the shape of animals’ claws.”

– Edmond de Goncourt, 1896. Edmond wrote this in a study of Hokusai’s work. Both quotations.

[*] Edmond de Goncourt, http://www.tcd.ie/Music/JF%20History/debussy.html


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