Captures Sights, Sounds of Debussy's Paris
today and continuing through June 10, visitors to Smith College
Museum of Art (SCMA) can explore the “soundscape” of Paris
during the lifetime of the French composer Claude Debussy
(1862-1918) and discover the affinities between Debussy’s
music and artistic developments that revolutionized the world
of painting in his time. Critics of Debussy’s day described
his music as “impressionist,” and while he never entirely
accepted the label, he entertained personal ties with the
Parisian artistic community and claimed to love pictures
almost as much as music.
Focusing on dance, popular music,
the sounds of the city, Impressionism/Neo-Impressionism and
Symbolism, the 60 paintings and prints in Debussy’s Paris are drawn largely from the museum’s permanent collection.
The exhibition is augmented with key loans as well as listening
Included in the exhibition are
works by Eugene Atget, Pierre Bonnard, Edgar Degas, Jules
Cheret, Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Camille Pissaro, Odilon
Redon, Georges Pierre Seurat, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec,
and Jacques Villon.
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: one devoted to Debussy’s music
and three devoted to section themes. While viewing works by the composer’s contemporaries,
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
Debussy was an especially keen
observer of Parisian street life and the music it fostered.
In the exhibition, a picture of the city is conveyed in Pierre
prints of bustling street scenes in Paris, with their visually
implied sounds of voices, traffic, and eclectic noises. Lithographs
of popular entertainers and music halls by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
and Jules Chéret evoke the boisterous
atmosphere and popular songs that were performed in the cabarets
and cafés-concerts of Montmartre,
where Debussy occasionally played the piano.
of these and other works in the exhibition point toward a
new kind of understanding of the relationship between art
and music that had developed in Debussy’s Paris.
With the expansion of lithographic printing techniques, the
domain of graphic arts was expanded to include a broader
range of genres, from posters and illustrated sheet music
covers to original art prints and illustrated books. Music
worthy of listening to moved beyond performances in prestigious
concert halls and the salons of the Parisian elite, and took
to the streets to include popular songs sung by cabaret singers,
as well as the tuneful cries of Parisian street vendors.
Debussy incorporated certain
novel or “exotic” elements into
his music, some of them inspired by Javanese gamelan music,
which he heard at the 1889 Paris Universal Exposition. But
in his own compositions, he remained essentially a purist,
fending off the noises of commercial mass culture.
Paris is presented in association with the music department’s
program of events, “Music
in Debussy’s Paris,” March 9 through 11, which celebrates
the 150th anniversary of the birth of the composer. .
Kalba, assistant professor of art at Smith, served as consulting
curator for the exhibition. Debussy’s Paris
is supported by a gift from the Selma Seltzer estate and
the Publications and Research Fund of SCMA.
eldest of five children, Debussy entered the Paris Conservatoire
in the fall of 1872 at the age of 10 and left 12 years
later as an extraordinarily accomplished musician and inventive
composer who would go on to have a major impact on the
course of 20th-century music.
Debussy’s early works
of the 1890s include his well-known Clair de lune ,
for piano, and the orchestral Prelude to the Afternoon
of a Faun (Prélude à l’après-midi
d’un faune, 1894). His only completed opera, Pelléas
and Mélisande (1902), a reworking
of Maurice Maeterlinck’s play, firmly
established his reputation. His later works include the orchestral
pieces The Sea (La Mer) and Nocturnes,
his Estampes and Préludes for
piano, and Games (Jeux).
Like many musicians
and artists of his time, Debussy was influenced by the operas
of Richard Wagner, around whose work a kind of artistic,
cultural, and socio-political cult known as “Wagnerianism” developed in
France. Debussy, however, would eventually distance himself
from the high emotionalism and drama of Wagner’s music to
compose in his own original voice.