Introduction

Debussy’s Paris: Art, Music, and Sounds of the City explores the “soundscape” of Paris during the lifetime of composer Claude Debussy (1862–1918). The exhibition is organized in association with the Smith College Music Department's "Music in Debussy's Paris" programs (March 10–11, 2012) of lectures and performances celebrating the 150th anniversary of the birth of the composer.  The affinities between Debussy’s music and the artistic developments that revolutionized the world of painting in his time are well established.  Contemporary critics described Debussy's music as “Impressionist,” and while he never entirely accepted the label, he entertained personal ties with the Parisian artistic community and even professed to love pictures almost as much as music.

The term “soundscape,” coined by the Canadian composer Murray Schaeffer, refers both to sound-as-noise and sound-as-music.  In the context of the exhibition, “soundscape” encompasses the music French men and women heard at the opera, ballet, concert halls, and cabarets, as well as the raucous, continuous noise that came to characterize modern Paris.  The exhibition is presented in three sections, allowing for the interplay of themes: “Noise and Popular Music,” “Correspondences:  Art and Music,” and “Dance.”  Debussy’s Paris evokes the acoustic environment of Paris not only through works of art but also through four listening stations provided in the gallery: one devoted to Debussy’s music and three devoted to section themes.  While viewing works by Degas, Manet, Monet, Toulouse-Lautrec and others, visitors can listen to selections of Debussy’s music, the cries of street vendors, cabaret stars Yvette Guilbert and Aristide Bruant singing popular songs, and the opening and closing stanzas of Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem “The Afternoon of a Faun.”

Image Credit:  Odilon Redon.  French, 1840–1916.  With Closed Eyes (Les Yeux clos), ca. 1895–1905. Oil on canvas. SCMA, Gift of Mrs. Charles Inslee (Marguerite Tuthill, class of 1915). Photograph by Petegorsky/Gipe