A new way of looking at things
“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of looking at things.” –  Henry Miller

Curt Veeneman, Ph.D.


Impression, maison

Musée Claude Debussy Part 3

11 March 2011 

(Read Part 1)

(Read Part 2)

Impressionism.  Debussy himself did not seem to approve of the term as applied to his music.  In fact, in 1908 Debussy wrote in a letter, "J'ai essayé de faire autre chose — en quelque sorte des réalités — ce que les imbéciles appellent impressionnisme. . . [I am trying to introduce something new — realities, so to speak — what idiots call impressionism]."  Nevertheless, Debussy was classified as an Impressionist composer in his lifetime, as he continues to be today.  What does this word mean?

The term Impressionism was originally applied to painting, and in fact was intended to be pejorative.

Since the eighteenth century, the Académie des Beaux-Arts, the institution that dominated the Parisian art scene, had held an annual, juried art show known as the Salon de Paris.  In 1873, a group of painters — Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro, and Alfred Sisley — aspiring to exhibit their paintings but frustrated by continually not being allowed to do so at the Salon, organized an association for that purpose.  Soon this group was joined by Berthe Morisot, Paul Cézanne, and Edgar Degas.

These painters, many of whom painted en plein air (out-of-doors, unlike the academic painters who traditionally worked in indoor studios), were endeavoring to capture the natural, transitory effects of sunlight in their paintings.  To this end they generally used small brush strokes, applying complementary colors side-by-side, so that the mixing of colors would take place in the eye of the viewer.

Claude Monet in 1772 had made a painting of the harbor of Le Havre, France, tossing off the name Impression, soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise), and entered it into an exhibition in 1874.  A critic who was reviewing the exhibition then decided to use the word derisively for the new trend in painting that he had seen emerging, and the term stuck.


Claude Monet, Impression, soleil levant, 1872, Oil on canvas, Musée Marmottan

(photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)


Claude Monet was perhaps the most methodical of the Impressionist painters.  In depicting differences in light at various times of day, and under various weather conditions, he made at least 25 paintings of haystacks; these can now be found in museums scattered throughout the world.  He made more than 30 paintings of the façade of Rouen Cathedral — even renting an apartment across from the cathedral for the purpose — capturing the light that reflected off the cathedral at different times of the day and year.  Representing his greatest output are more than 250 oil paintings of water lilies from his garden at Giverny that Monet produced during the last thirty years of his life.  His enormous water lily murals can be seen today at the Musée de l'Orangerie.

One of my favorite paintings by a Post- Impressionist painter, and one that I have to see every time I am in Chicago, is Georges Seurat’s Un dimanche après-midi à l'Île de la Grande Jatte (Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1884-1886, at the Art Institute of Chicago).


Georges Seurat, Un dimanche après-midi sur l'île de la Grande Jatte, 1884–1886, Oil on canvas, The Art Institute of Chicago

(photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)


Seurat studied scientific research on color, optical effects, and perception.  He believed that as an artist he could use color in painting in the same way that a composer uses counterpoint in music, taking Impressionist technique to its extreme.  In his large Sunday Afternoon painting at the Art Institute (this work is over 10 feet wide by almost seven feet high), he used a pointillist technique to depict women with parasols and bustles, men with top hats and canes, girls in bonnets, a pet monkey, dogs, people fishing, and sailboats, a steamboat, and a rowing skiff on the river.  When one stands only inches from the painting, the surface appears to be dynamically pulsing with points of color.  Only upon retreating from the painting is one eventually able to make out the figures and comprehend the composition as a whole.

How might Debussy’s music relate to this approach in painting?

While there are obviously differences in the media involved (sound compared with light) certain formal principals obtain in both Impressionist painting and Debussy's music. Impressionist paintings tend toward abstraction when the ephemeral qualities of color and light are of primary concern to the artist as compared to the given subject. Likewise, the formal structure in Debussy’s music is often hazed by non-functional harmonies, non-traditional scales (for example, pentatonic, octatonic, or whole-tone), parallel motion with consecutive, inert intervals (perfect fourths and fifths), the avoidance of form-delineating cadences (harmonic and rhythmic points of stability in the music), and the use of non-developmental repetition.  The parallel between the Impressionist painters’ fascination with Japanese prints and the Impressionist composers’ delight in Oriental scales is also hard to miss. Of note here, a fond possession of Debussy's was his ceramic, Japanese frog, “Arkle,” also on display at the Musée Claude Debussy.

A salient characteristic of Impressionist painting is the use of pure colors in juxtaposition.  Correspondingly, widely-spaced lines made up of pure orchestral colors are often heard in Debussy’s music.  And just as the surface of Impressionist paintings has a vibrant quality in order to render the shadowy effect of light, the dynamics in Debussy’s music tend to be in a constant state of flux to create its unique mood and atmosphere. Similarly, as softer edges are typically characteristic of Impressionist painting, in Debussy's music the dynamics are often subdued: in the 708 measures of Jeux, for example, 557 are piano (soft) or pianissimo (very soft).

Considering all of these factors in common between Debussy's music and Impressionist painting, it is interesting to note that many of the titles of Debussy’s works have a visual aspect, to the point of being interchangeable with those of hypothetical canvases.  Take, for example, seascapes:

La Mer (the sea)
Jeux de vagues (play of waves)
Reflets dans l'eau (reflections in water)
L'eau pure du bassin (pure water of the pond)
Poissons d'or (goldfish; Debussy in fact owned a Japanese lacquer with this subject).

Or, consider sky- and landscapes:

Le vent dans la plaine (the wind in the plain)
Jardins sous la pluie (gardens in the rain)
Feuilles mortes (autumn leaves)
Des pas sur la neige (steps in the snow)
The Snow Is Dancing (original title in English)
Nuages (clouds)
Printemps (spring)
Clair de Lune (moonlight)

In the visual arts, in general:

Arabesque (the term originally denoted a decorative, geometric pattern; can also apply to ballet)
D'un cahier d'esquisses (from a notebook of sketches)

And in architecture:

La cathédrale engloutie (the sunken cathedral)
Pagodes (pagodas)
Le tombeau sans nom (the tomb without name).

All of these titles pertain specifically to images; in fact, Debussy used the very term “Images” as a title multiple times.  Perhaps “Impressionism” is not such a bad word to use when discussing Debussy’s music. In fact, Debussy reveals in his own words in a letter to the composer Edgar Varèse (1883-1965), “J'aime presque autant les images que la musique [I love pictures almost as much as music]."

Last, at the Musée Claude Debussy, we saw other paintings of Debussy, a bronze bust, the suit that he wore, locks of his hair, his seal, facsimiles of his scores and letters, and his walking stick.  Was this the same cane that he holds in the sculpture that we had earlier seen in the square?



One display case also contains Debussy’s death mask.  Debussy was diagnosed with colorectal cancer, from which he died in 1918.  This was at a time when the German spring offensive of World War I was underway, and his funeral procession wound through deserted streets of Paris as bombs landed.  The pianissimos of his music would never have been heard.

His daughter Chouchou died of diphtheria only a year later in 1919.  She was buried in her father’s tomb without any indication on the marker.  Debussy’s wife Emma was buried there as well in 1934.

A few days after visiting the museum we saw Debussy’s tomb at the Cimetière de Passy, located near the Place du Trocadéro in the sixteenth arrondissement of Paris. His tomb is a short distance from that of composer Gabriel Fauré, whose Requiem is truly transcendent.  In another curious symmetry, Fauré wrote his Dolly suite for another child of Emma Bardac, Chouchou's half-sister.

Debussy’s resting place is also close to the grave of a mentor to the Impressionists, the painter Édouard Manet. Édouard's brother Eugène was married to Berthe Morisot, who is also buried there. She posed for Manet's paintings, and her own Impressionist paintings can be viewed at the Musée d’Orsay, Musée Marmottan, and Musée l’Orangerie in Paris.

The sunrise is indeed sublime when viewed from the vicinity of Passy, with all of Paris at one's feet, and where profound impressions can be evoked.



The photographs used in this blog, unless otherwise noted, are by Curt Veeneman.

Related Posts (France)

Who started Travel Con Brio®?

Composer, scholar (in music theory, ethnomusicology, and music history), performer, educator, conference organizer, and entrepreneur, Curt Veeneman received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley.

His additional interests, subsumed in wonder at the beauty of God’s entire creation, include art (he was an art major before the balance tipped ever-so-slightly toward music), literature, architecture, photography, mathematics, history, languages, cultural studies, world-cuisines, and, of course, travel.
photograph by Colleen Veeneman

In founding Travel Con Brio®, Curt was eager to synthesize all of these interests to create imaginative, stirring, and enlightening experiences to be enjoyed by both young and mature travelers alike.  The tours that he organizes reflect his extensive travel experience and familiarity with the art, music and culture of numerous countries, with each tour being richly enhanced by local experts.

Curt and his wife Colleen live near San Francisco.  They have three children.

What is this blog about?

Culled from a number of trips abroad, this blog compiles various experiences in an attempt to reveal the cultural nuances of places visited on Travel Con Brio® tours.  Sometimes humorous, sometimes serious, Curt’s observations are intended to describe and appreciate the personalities, character, idiosyncrasies, conventions, mood, and ambiance of places visited.  Contemplations of topics ranging from language and customs to climate and bureaucracies are freely offered alongside art and music reviews.  Any cultural issue, if illuminating, can become the focus.

These musings on the personal impact of various cultures are offered so that you, as a traveler, may compare and contrast your own impressions with them.  Do you share a similar interest?  Do you agree with a specific conclusion?  Or is there a fine distinction to be made regarding a particular point?  You are invited to leave your comments; please, however, be respectful of other readers.

And last, a caveat:  flukes, asymmetries, and twists of fate may suggest more about Curt than about any foreign culture under discussion.

What are some of Curt Veeneman’s musical activities?

As a composer, Curt has spoken and/or his works have been performed throughout the United States, in Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Bulgaria.  He is the winner of several awards, including the ASCAP-Hubbell Award for composition.

Curt Veeneman's compositions include Les Cloches, inspired by the life of Joan of Arc (premièred by the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra), The Wiry Concord for 5-string banjo, dulcimer, cimbalom, harp, harpsichord, piano, viola and percussion (available on Capstone Records), Mountain Thyme, based on Bulgarian folk music (recorded by the Sofia Symphony Orchestra), Alcuin's Riddle, for orchestra and 15 soloists who cross the “audience-river,” Hommage for voice, flute, 'cello, piano, and percussion, Windmills, computer music featuring sampled wind turbines on California's Altamont Pass, and Pneuma for solo flute, (also available on Capstone Records).

Of this last work, the following comments have been made:  “J’ai beaucoup apprécié le lyrisme et la rigueur de Pneuma pour flûte de Curt Veeneman”  (I greatly appreciate the lyricism and the precision of Curt Veeneman’s Pneuma for flute) —Gérard Condé, Le Monde, Paris, 29 August 1996; “a well written piece”  — Robert Dick, flutist, author of The Other Flute; “it is quite exciting!” — Molly Alicia Barth of eighth blackbird; and “strong and imaginative” — Jules Langert, San Francisco Classical Voice, 13 March 2006.

As a new music promoter, he directed the new music ensemble Sonor Borealis at University of Alberta, Canada, and founded and directed the concert series, PACIFIC MARKET: Fresh Music From Around The World, at the University of the Pacific.  As a performer, Curt Veeneman is recorded on Music and Arts.

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