Noise and Popular Music



Claude Debussy was an especially keen observer of Parisian street life and the music it fostered.  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 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.  It now took to the streets to include popular songs sung by cabaret stars Aristide Bruant and Yvette Guilbert, as well as the tuneful cries of Parisian street vendors, which were featured in Gustave Charpentier’s box-office hit Louise. Debussy himself 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.

Image credit:  Eugène Atget. French, 1857–1927. Organ Grinder (Joueur d’orgue), 1898; printed later by Berenice Abbott, ca. 1910. Gelatin silver print. SCMA, Purchased. Photograph by Petegorsky/Gipe

Sound file:  Songs performed by popular cabaret stars Aristide Bruant, singing À la Bastille (“To the Bastille”), and Yvette Guilbert, singing Le Fiacre (“The Hackney Cab”). Produced by RBH Multimedia, Inc.