SCMA press release

debussyparis1NORTHAMPTON, Mass.—Opening 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 stations.

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.

debussyparis2The 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 a Faun.”

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 Bonnard’s 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.

The juxtaposition 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.

Debussy’s 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. View a calendar of the programs.

Laura 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.

About Claude Debussy (1862—1918)

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The 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.