Impressions from Monet to Ravel
Guest Post by Gino Cirignano
Who couldn’t love Monet, Degas or Renoir?
Well, some of the most prominent art critics of Monet, Degas and Renoir’s time saw impressionist work as radical and an affront to their sensibilities.
The well-heeled types of the late 19th and early 20th century still preferred depictions of grand historical scenes painted in-studio (like Alma-Tadema’s detailed, romantic portrayals of ancient Greece), over what they saw as Monet’s disturbingly “formless” plants in ponds.
Fortunately for art lovers everywhere it didn’t stop this avant-garde movement from taking off.
Did you know painters weren’t the only creative geniuses being frowned upon by the European arbiters of good taste at that time?
While Tadema-loving art critics were initially chuckling at Monet, several Wagner-loving music critics were rolling their eyes at Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, two musicians from France, who thankfully persisted anyway. They inspired one other while at the same time being friendly rivals.
Debussy, Ravel and the other composers of the movement that would later be called Musical Impressionism created work that stimulated the imagination, in a manner that mirrored the way impressionist paintings were impacting open-minded art lovers of the time.
Eventually Musical Impressionism won over many critics.
What is Musical Impressionism? Try These 12 Tracks
Musical impressionism focused on “[…] suggestion and atmosphere. It conveyed the moods and emotions aroused by the subject rather than a detailed tone‐picture (Wikipedia).”
Interestingly, both Debussy and Ravel rejected the term “Impressionist” in relation to their music and themselves as composers.
But if you listen to “Petite Suite” by Debussy or “Bolero” by Ravel, you may experience that same feeling you get when seeing an actual Monet, Renoir, Degas or Van Gogh in person — where you feel blown away by the sheer artistry.
These two classical music standards create a mood or an impression of a time, place, moment or feeling universal to all.
The raw emotions expressed within these sonic landscapes are mesmerizing examples of Impressionism.
Enter Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin” or Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” and you will suddenly find yourself transported into a musical world without boundaries.
Quite a first impression.
Claude Debussy (1862-1918), universally acknowledged as the first Impressionist composer, is now considered one of the most influential composers of the late 19thand early 20thcenturies.
A prodigy, he entered the Conservatoire de Paris — the leading musical institution in France — at the age of ten!
Debussy’s genius was making timeless music.
Debussy’s Most Important Work For Orchestra
La mer premiered in 1905 and received a mixed reception, but eventually became one of his most admired and performed works for orchestra.
Written with the enormous power of the sea in mind, this is a tour de force of melodic fury.
Debussy’s Most Romantic Composition
Often heard in movies and on television, another of Debussy’s beloved and enchanting compositions is the lovely Clair de Lune (1890).
(By the way, this link is from a 1913 piano roll with Debussy himself playing the piano!)
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) was considered the greatest living composer in France during the 1920s and 1930s.
And like Debussy, his body of work is revered and found on playlists around the world.
A good reason for the popularity of both composers can be traced to the same Impressionist esthetic we treasure in the works of Manet, Pizarro and Cezanne.
Ravel’s Most Famous Work For Orchestra
Known by many for the universally acclaimed “Bolero” (1928), he delighted music lovers with many other musical compositions, such as the complex orchestral work Daphnis et Chloe (1912).
This passionate suite exemplifies how Ravel embraced Impressionism (though he would be loath to admit it).
Ravel’s Most Hypnotic Musical Foray
Another popular Ravel composition, which conveys an early aspect of his Impressionism, is his very first orchestral rhapsody, Rapsodie espagnole (1907-1908).
This musical magic carpet ride has beautifully layered textures.
The Japanese musical influence
Both Ravel and Debussy were influenced by music popular in Japan at the time and you can hear reflections of this in Ma mere l’oye (1910) by Ravel.
This is also true in Debussy’s Estampes No. 1 Pagodes.
The Japanese style used musical scales and various modes that intrigued these European composers.
CULTURE (and I Don’t Mean the Kardashian’s)
Whether or not you like classical music, this is beauty in melody.
Art is in the eye of the beholder. It’s also in the ear of the beholder.
Why overlook music just because it’s labeled “classical” or even “classic?”
Give Impressionist Music a try and spread the word.
“Reverie” by Debussy and “Pavane pour une infante defunte” by Ravel are personal favorites and a good place to start.
Later on, perhaps buy one album for yourself that features both of these innovative composers:
Help yourself to this one hundred and two track epic, “Debussy & Ravel: Orchestral Works by Jean Martinon” or “Ravel: Boléro & Debussy: La Mer by Berlin Philharmonic & Herbert von Karajan”
We are talking food for the soul here, people.