Claude Monet’s painting, Water Lilies, is probably one of the most famous examples of Impressionist art, the school of painting that flourished in France in the latter half of the 19th century. Meanwhile, composers such as Debussy and Ravel also took up the new looser and suggestive but still highly technical approach in their music. In London later this year, art and music come together to celebrate their Impressionist relationship. A new exhibition From Paris: A Taste for Impressionism, brings masterpieces from the Clark collection to London’s Royal Academy of Arts, including paintings by Monet, Renoir, Pissarro and Degas, among many others. On 1 September the French conductor Fabien Gabel leads a concert of French Impressionist music performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and starring soprano Danielle DeNiese in the Academy’s courtyard. Jessica Duchen caught up with Fabien and the exhibition’s curator, MaryAnne Stevens, to discuss the relationship between Impressionist art and music during this week’s preview to the exhibition…
Interview with MaryAnne and Fabien
JD: MaryAnne and Fabien, how useful is it to bring together Impressionist music and art?
MAS: It’s extremely worthwhile, not least because you find musicians interested in art, artists interested in music and both artists and musicians interested in poetry. For me what’s so fascinating is precisely those connections, because it opens up new insights into each of the disciplines.
FG: Impressionism is definitely interrelated between arts. It’s interesting, though, that impressionism in music arrived about 20 years after the paintings of Renoir and Monet. Debussy’s early Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune in 1894 marked the beginning of impressionism in music. Before that, French composers like Chausson and Chabrier were interested in, for example, exoticism and orientalism. Those artistic circles were always close: Chausson, who was wealthy, owned a large collection of paintings and supported a number of artists and writers. Duparc was friendly with many painters like Manet and Renoir and his orchestration is also impressionist in a way, especially in Phydilé, an extremely erotic song.
MAS: The reason for the time-lag may be simply that it took time for composers to understand how the use of colour and the gestural paintwork of impressionism could translate into musical form. It took composers like Debussy, Fauré and later Ravel, really to have that ability to appreciate and understand, then see how the translation works. And yet when Debussy is writing so-called impressionist music, painting and literature have moved on and we’re engulfed in the world of Mallarmé, Symbolist poetry and the post-impressionism of Gauguin and Cezanne.
JD: What connections can we make between techniques of Impressionist painting and composition? Take that pointillist Pissarro landscape, for example: you see a shimmer of light, yet each little stroke has to be so precise to create that suggestion…
MAS: Exactly. That’s what’s behind Debussy’s Images or La Mer, for example: the understanding of how you can make a picture in sound, how you evoke the sea through sound, just as Monet does in the 1880s through painting.
FG: Impressionism is a suggestion – not like romanticism, where the feelings of a composer or poet are expressed. An impressionist poet or composer will suggest something in words or notes, but you have to interpret it for yourself. Then, if you look at all the details in a score of Ravel, it seems complicated, but when you step back it creates a huge harmony. It’s exactly like a Renoir or Monet painting: you can look at all the little brushstrokes, but then you step back and it’s all perfect. And thirdly, when one of Ravel’s last pupils, Manuel Rosenthal, was asked to explain Ravel’s music in three words, he said: “Nothing too much” – “Rien de trop”. These composers write a small amount of music, but with so much information inside! Concision is a great skill of French composers and painters alike.
The London Philharmonic Orchestra’s concert of impressionist music to complement the exhibition From Paris: A Taste for Impressionism is on 1 September in the historic courtyard of the Royal Academy of Arts. The orchestra is joined by soprano Danielle de Niese and violinist Simone Lamsma for music by Ravel, Chausson, Duparc and Dukas. Tickets for Music in the Courtyard are £12 and available via a ballot system through the Guardian website until Friday 6 July. From Paris: A Taste for Impressionism runs from 7 July to 23 September.
As a taster for the RAA’s exhibition and concert we’ve put together our own gallery of Impressionist masterpieces that you can enjoy together with Impressionistic music to match. [Images courtesy of the Royal Academy of Arts]
1. Jean-Léon Gérôme: The Snake Charmer
A snake-charmer performs against a background of Turkish tiling from Topkapi palace (even though snake-charming never took place there!). The orientalist painting shares some exotic atmosphere with Chausson’s Poème, which originally was based on a story by Ivan Turgenev, The Song of Triumphant Love, in which a suitor seduces a beautiful girl with a magic Oriental violin decorated with snakeskin.
2. Claude Monet: The Cliffs at Etretat
Monet uses tiny, precise flecks of colour to create the sensation of sunlight on the sea and the rocks. Ravel’s subtle inflections of harmony and rhythm create a similar sense of shimmering water in motion.
Ravel: un barque sur l’ocean
3. Pissarro: Saint-Charles, Eragny
The glow of Pissarro’s painting is built up out of thousands of tiny, precise points of colour, just as the heat-haze of Debussy’s music requires the utmost precision in the composer’s choice of notes and instrumentation. The effect of both is overwhelmingly beautiful, with a near-tangible aura of warmth.
Debussy: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
4. Renoir nude
Renoir makes this idealised nude part of the painting’s general atmosphere by using similar brush-strokes for her body and the background; similarly, Duparc sets the soprano voice as part of a lavish orchestral texture to support the erotic poetry of Leconte de Lisle.
5. Degas: Dancers in the Classroom
Degas places these images of dancers stretching, resting and practising in a construction that works perfectly in terms of abstract shape and flow. Debussy’s piano Etudes are remarkably similar, building mini-masterpieces from exercises designed to improve technique.
Debussy: Etude pour les cinq doigts
6. Corot: Bathers in the Borromean Isles
Baudelaire’s poem invites the lover to escape to a land where all is luxe, calme et volupté; Duparc’s famous setting is seductive, mysterious and almost threatening in its beauty. Corot observes two nude figures together in an idealised landscape, yet much of his picture is taken up by the dark mystery of the tree above them.