The Impressionists — Part 1

Claude Debussy, Rockstar

Back in the early 1980s I remember reading a Van Halen interview and at one point he related how much he liked Claude Debussy. (If you follow the link you can read the whole interview [from 1980] for yourself. That wasn’t my first exposure to the name Claude Debussy as I had taken some music courses in college, but it was interesting that EVH was a fan and it’s probably the first time the name “Debussy” was mentioned in a rock guitar interview. It’s likely that Edward’s early piano studies were responsible for the exposure to classical music and it didn’t hurt that his father was a lifelong jazz musician who, because of his European (Dutch) background, probably knew all about Debussy and other Impressionist composers. Debussy casts a long shadow over 20th Century music and while it is beyond the scope of this blog and this blogger to explore all of the aspects of Debussy’s music and Impressionism, especially in the classical music realm, I am capable of drawing attention to some of the salient musical ideas he expressed and some of the musicians he and his contemporaries inspired.

You can get a full Debussy bio from several sources if you are interested: here, here, here, and here. What is striking about Debussy is that unlike many composers/French composers from this period, he is a man who came from nowhere; he was not from musical family and the source of his talent and influences has always been somewhat mysterious. He stated many times that his overriding guide for composing and playing was always, first and foremost, his own pleasure and enjoyment; musical rules, critics and audiences alike were of no consequence. Debussy was part of a group of somewhat controversial composers who came of age and success in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Other notables in this group known as Impressionists included: Maurice Ravel, Erik Satie and Isaac Albéniz. Departing from established norms in the classical musical field was, of course, not without problems. European audiences of the day were somewhat less than enamored with any departure from classical and romantic musical traditions. Debussy has often been called a musical revolutionary because of his desire to overthrow the established “rules” of composition (and perhaps it is this desire that Van Halen channeled the most?). Debussy (and Ravel to a certain extent) did not like the fact that [their] brand of composition brought comparison to the art movement of Impressionism: the harmonic nature of their compositions and the dreamy qualities of their music recalled the Impressionists’ art: “… scenes suffused with reflected light in which the emphasis is on the overall impression rather than outline or clarity of detail.” They considered themselves “modernists” and believed they were composing for a new generation and a new century. This is certainly voiced by Debussy in one of his most famous quotes: “The century of airplanes has a right to its own music.”

The video above features Leonard Bernstein’s analysis of one of Debussy’s most famous compositions, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun), his first real musical “success”. Bernstein, one of history’s greatest musical minds, explores the background on the modern period I alluded to in the previous paragraph and then, during an analysis of the composition, explains Impressionism and how Debussy’s ideas helped shape music for the 20th century. He discusses the vagueness and dreamy qualities implied by uncertain tonal centers and Debussy’s use of the Augmented Fourth or the Tritone Interval (notes that span from G nat to C# and chords that move from Emaj to Bb7). As Bernstein explains, though it is unclear at the outset, Debussy’s Faun Poem is in the key of Emaj and throughout refers to, reverts to, or flirts with, either Emaj or one of it’s relative tonics and these tonal references serve as “landmarks” that illustrate a point of repose or a change in movement. As the 1st part of the video segues into part 2 (it should do so automatically) it is clear that Debussy also makes use of conventional I-V cadences (Emaj to Bmaj) which restore a sense of tradition and diatonic order, but no sooner than he does, he introduces a Whole Tone Scale! (more ambiguity). Bernstein gives Debussy credit for inventing the Whole Tone Scale, explains the relation of this scale to the Tritone, and notes that this is the first Atonal Scale to appear in music history (which should help illustrate why this was all very controversial to 19th century ears). Not included in the videos, but important nonetheless is that Debussy also employed: Bi-tonality, Pentatonic Scales, Random Modulations, free chromaticism, tonal ambiguity, and new ideas for instrument combinations. He also employed what was termed, at the time, A Strong Orientalism, which translates to “he was open to using sounds and ideas from Eastern music in his compositions.” [A familiar tale is how enchanted he was with the performance of a troupe of Gamelan performers from Java at the 1889 and 1900 Paris Expositions.]

All of this musical theory stuff is tame by today’s standards and is certainly familiar to anyone who is well-versed in various aspects of theory across different genres of music (classical, jazz, fusion, etc), but many of these ideas were really groundbreaking for Debussy’s day. People walked out of the performances because these composers were creating music that sounded atonal and dissonant to 19th century ears steeped in classical and romantic traditions. Modern composers and players of all stripes have made use of these techniques since the beginning of the last century (pretty much every blues/rock guitar player starts with the Pentatonic scale). While Debussy’s influence obviously transcends many musical boundaries, his music, played as is, holds up to this day. Piano was his instrument of choice for composing and/or performing, and further below we will make use of piano videos to explore a famous Debussy song. However, it is very easy to adapt his pieces for the guitar. Long ago I reviewed this wonderful CD of Classical Guitar Masters Julian Bream and John Williams collaborations from the 1970s titled Together and Together Again, that has been repackaged (as a 2-disc set) at various times since. The disc(s) contains three Debussy compositions: Reverie, Golliwog’s Cakewalk and the well-known Claire De Lune. It also contains a few fellow Impressionist Isaac Albéniz compositions as well as cuts from contemporaries Enrique Granados and Gabriel Fauré. Obviously, Bream and Williams were big fans of this period and saw a lot of value in adapting piano pieces to 2 guitars. (Some of these pieces even sound as if they were composed specifically for the guitar). Below they play Reverie; haunting and ethereal — one of Debussy’s early compositions and one that I think illustrates his dreamy musical qualities very well.

Guitar Master Tommy Emmanuel is also is a Debussy fan and as he relates, “he’ll do anything to entertain people!” So here is his version of Debussy’s Golliwog’s Cakewalk. If you think this doesn’t sound like classical musical, well imagine hearing it in 1911! This piece was part of the Children’s Corner Piano Suite which was written in honor of Debussy’s daughter, Claude-Emma (“Chou-Chou”). The rhythm and harmonic content are Debussy’s most obvious nod to American Ragtime. Debussy also injects “the love-death leitmotif of Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde into the B part of the piece. Tommy does a very faithful rendition of this difficult piece of music (in Eb).

As the 20th century progressed the ideas and sounds of Debussy and his Modernity or Impressionism began to appear in popular and jazz music. Anyone who has any familiarity with jazz recognizes concepts like the tritone, chromatics, atonal scales and cadences that don’t involve familiar rules of harmony. Not only was this seen in compositions of the day, but it also appeared in the improvisations of notable jazz players, especially those with a classical background or an ear toward these composers. Someone I have written about extensively, Django Reinhardt, adopted many of Debussy’s (Impressionist) ideas for his own compositions and improvising. While Django was certainly a fan of many types of music and artists ranging from Bach to Louis Armstrong, he was quoted early in his career: “Jazz attracted me because in it I found a formal perfection and instrumental precision that I admire in classical music, but which popular music doesn’t have.” The influence of the Impressionism would emerge as early as 1937 when he recorded Bolero, which was heavily inspired by Maurice Ravel’s composition of the same name (this will be explored in Part 2).

In 1940, after the outbreak of World War II that left violinist Stephane Grappelli stranded in England, Django enlisted Hubert Rostaing on clarinet and composed one of his most famous numbers, Nuages; a guitar nod to Impressionism and a gift to the French people who were suffering under Nazi occupation. Stuffed full of Debussy-style Chromaticism, Whole Tone and Diminished scale runs, the song is classic Reinhardt. Some have speculated that because the Nazi regime was hostile to anything that smacked of American music or certainly jazz, Django shifted his composition style to one that was much more classically-influenced and this may be true. Or the addition of reeds to his ensemble inspired him because in addition to Nuages, he would compose or arrange Impressionist-influenced music with this new cast of musicians throughout the 1940s: Manoir de mes Rêves, Melodie au Crepescule, Danse Norvegienne, Cavalerie, Oiseaux Des Iles, Lentement Mademoiselle, Fleur D’Ennui and Crepuscule . All of these pieces have the sound and vibe of Debussy and the other classical composers that Django admired and some, like Lentement Mademoiselle and Crepuscle have direct clarinet intro nods that recall Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (above). He also would record a Debussy piece, Reverie, during the Rome Sessions of 1949-59. While not as literal as Bream and Williams’ take above, Django obviously takes a Debussy inspiration and makes it his own. He also would record a song by the name of Clair de Lune in 1947, although this piece has nothing in common with the Debussy’s composition, except it’s name. The song was actually composed by Joseph Kosma, (writer of many a splendid thing, including Les feuilles mortes, more commonly known as the standard, Autumn Leaves, for an aborted movie that would’ve been named La Fleur de l’âge, had it been completed. Supposedly this is just one of the 4 songs Django and Company would’ve performed and it’s a shame it was not to be as Django plays some totally killin’ guitar on it. What is strange is that Django DID appear in a 1932 movie titled…you guess it Clair de Lune some two years before the original Hot Club of France was formed. This movie was shot (completely outdoors) in Cannes and features some very melodious guitar.

Clair de Lune was certainly one of Debussy’s most famous pieces, part of the Suite bergamasque and titled from an 1869 poem of the same name. (Interestingly enough, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune was inspired by Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem, L’après-midi d’un faune). It is played very emotionally and dynamically above by the very talented Kathia Buniatishvili. It is also discussed and analyzed here and here if you are interested to learn more about this very famous composition. I’ve listened to many different versions of this piece, including a the one by Bream and Williams, which is a favorite and I have to say this piece is what I imagine 1895 sounded like…at least in certain circles.

This video analysis above of Debussy’s La fille aux cheveux de lin, explained through the lens of jazz harmony is a must-watch, especially if you have any music geek in you at all. It is also an interesting primer for jazz/classical harmony. Anyone who has attempted to play Jazz or Gypsy Jazz will find many of these musical ideas familiar because they have become important staples of the style(s). In this lesson on YouTube (unfortunately it does not have subs) Romane (who I wrote about here) demonstrates the Whole Tone scale beginning at about the 9 minute mark. Diminshed/Octatonic scales and arpeggios are also often used in improvisations. Diminished chords are also used very frequently in the harmony of Gyspy Jazz tunes and songs from the Swing Era and these “movement” / “transition” chords and the ability to play over them is very important aspect of what gives the style it’s verve and exotic sound. See also discussions about this topic here and here and know that Debussy’s influence was definitely a factor, even if the chords or how they are thought of is not exactly the same as is true in classical music.

Stephane Wrembel is may be the most Impressionist-influenced composer/player happening today. He certainly has embraced all of what can be gleaned from Debussy, Django, Jimmy Page, and others to compose and perform music that sounds unlike any other. I’ve written about him before, here and here and his abilities as a composer and channel of these musical ideas first expressed back in the 19th century only continue to grow. In the above video he demonstrates his Impressionist ideas and how this shapes his music. Anyone who is a fan of Gypsy Jazz will find these concepts very familiar, but Stephane is definitely one of the riskiest composers in the genre. His music synthesizes all of the freedom found not only in Impressionism, but also the best music of the 20th century and the ideas that Debussy espoused about how emotion and freedom were more important to music that convention.

As I have done in the past, like this exploration on the song Waiting for the Sunrise, I find that the history, progression and connections of musical styles, ideas, players and composers fascinating. Debussy’s music stands on it’s own and it brings me great pleasure to listen to it and all that it inspired. What he created became so much more than just music; it became a way of making music, that inspired later musicians to create their own unique statements. The idea of freedom he aspired to and tried to bring to his compositions is a quality that every writer, player and improviser seeks to achieve because that is the highest plateau one can reach as an artist. I’m not sure what influence Debussy had on Edward Van Halen. The very different rock of Fair Warning? (that I reviewed here). The keyboard stuff that started appearing at that time? Sunday Afternoon in the Park? 1984? Girl Gone Bad? Someone should ask him, it would be interesting to find out!

In Part 2 I’ll look at some of the other Impressionist composers and how their ideas and their music helped shape the sounds of the 20th century and beyond!

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