Backup of the Impact of the Impressionist Movement on French Piano Music in the Early 20th Century

Backup of the Impact of the Impressionist Movement on French Piano Music in the Early 20th Century
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   1 The impact of the Impressionist movement on French piano music in the early 20 th  Century The Impressionist movement is renowned as one of the most divisive musical movements in history; to such an extent that one of its most famous and influential composers, Claude Debussy, openly voiced his opposition to the term. He believed it to be a way of simple classification for his music, avoiding the proper analysis of its content. 1  More than likely he also rejected the term due to his prior knowledge of the negative connotations it srcinally held when used in the description of Claude Monet’s “  Impression, Soleil Levant. 2 ”  Ravel, though never outright deriding the term, decided that the lack of structural “lines” was not the way in which he wished to ultimately compose, adapting an almost mechanical form of composition and dissonance, owing to the sounds of his childhood, and not overly impressionist in style. 3  Other artists, such as Satie, explicitly distanced themselves from the Impressionist movement. 4  These factors create a fascinating backdrop to a movement that entirely altered French piano music in many ways, including its composition,  performance and inspiration. This essay seeks to document and analyse some of the developments in these areas throughout this turbulent but hugely influential time in the history of French piano music. The spread of the Impressionist style in French piano music owes much to virtuoso  pianist Ricardo Viñes. A force to be reckoned with in Impressionist piano  performance, he was an essential component in the realisation of works by the influential composers early in the movement, before his overly free way of interpretation cooled some, Ravel especially, towards his performances. 5  Indeed, his  belief in the style was all too clear even before its spread to France, and certainly his 1  Lesure, 2  Venturi, 3  Larner (1996), pp. 20-26. 4  Orledge, 5  Rodger,   2  performance debuting Mussorgsky’s “  Pictures at an Exhibition”  could not fail to be, in part, the catalyst for rapid growth of the movement throughout French piano music. Being reasonably nationalist, Viñes began searching for composers in France with similar ideals to his own, and encouraging composers to adapt their style. 6  It was in 1902 that he performed one of the first truly Impressionist piano pieces by a French composer. Maurice Ravel’s “Jeux d’Eau”  is a composition taking much influence from Lizst’s “  Les Jeux d’Eaux á   la Villa d’E   ste . ” Ravel uses innovative compositional techniques and performance directions to create the impression of the movement of water. Ravel’s  ingenuity is displayed in how the piece itself is played, instructing Viñes to allow the higher notes of the piece to ring out using the pedal, giving the sense of a consistently fluid, rippling effect through the composition.  Ex. 1: Though the clarity of the notes being played may suffer as the harmonics of the arpeggios build up, Ravel believed them to be subservient to the “hazy impression of vibrations in the air.” 7  These ideas enabled Ravel and composers under his influence to wash their music with sustained colour and manifest the  sensation  of certain 6  Nichols, 7  Palmer (1973), pp. 111-113.   3 environments or objects, rather than merely attempting to replicate them. 8  The inscription on the piece further validates the theory that this work is purely impressionist. Taken from an Impressionist poem, it reads “  River God laughing at the water that tickles him.” 9   Reading the preceding quotation in relation to the piece itself all but confirms the piece as Impressionist in inspiration as well as in composition.  Jeux d’E  au  was to have a profound impact on all of French piano music, far more so than Debussy’s  rather romantically orientated piano work  Pour la Piano , premiered in the same year. The lack of impressionist textures and ideals in this piece meant it  paled in comparison to the shimmering Impressionism of  Jeux d’E  au.  Debussy had already created his ideal of Impressionist work, completing his opera  Pelléas et  Mélisande  beforehand but was seemingly unable to immediately transfer his ideas to his piano music (   barring the stirring pentatonic work Clair de Lune in 1890) . 10  Though it could be argued that  Jeux d’Eau was Ravel’s most seminal work, it falls short of being widely accepted as his greatest piano music. That honour falls to another composition of water-music based impressionism, the haunting Gaspard de la  Nuit  . The first of this three-part collection based on the poems by Aloysius Bertrand is Ondine.  Amusingly, the piece was srcinally intended as “a caricature of romanticism” but  Ravel ’s  fears that during the process of composition he had become carried away with the intricacy of the music were well founded. The result is a  juxtaposition of two styles: a synthesis of Romanticism and Impressionism. 11  Notice in the example, taken from the first bars of the piece, the strong melodic line in the second stave, written in a style more associated with Romantic works than those of the Impressionism movement. 8  Pastler, 9  Larner (1996), pp. 68-69. 10  Nichols (1975), pp. 15-16. 11  Larner (1996), p. 109.   4  Ex. 2: Comparing this to the top line demonstrates the contrast in styles, with the lower stave anchoring the intricate rhythmic action of the top stave. The harmonies used on the top stave do not concur with that of Romantic music, with a perfect fifth and minor sixth constantly changing, giving the effect of a tremolo on the piece. Later in the  piece we see more evidence of the Impressionist style, with similar arpeggios to those used in his  Jeux d’Eau  to create a musical manifestation of the Water Fairy in Bertrand’s poetry  attempting to woo him and the maniacal laughter within seconds of his rejecting her.  Ex. 3: It is wise also to note Ravel’s attention to the melodic line, which provides a tenable link for the listener to the ever-changing spectrum of tonality used throughout the  piece. 12  In parts where this link is not applied, the arpeggios themselves can be seen to 12  Palmer (1973), pp. 116-117.
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