Associations with the Visual Arts in the Music of Debussy

Ashworth, Amanda Pauline (2021). Associations with the Visual Arts in the Music of Debussy. PhD thesis The Open University.



Debussy’s writings make frequent reference to his artistic leanings and his penchant for visual inspirations, particularly those in the natural world. He enjoyed the company of both writers and artists, and his contemporaries, particularly his friend and early biographer Louis Laloy, were quick to point to a perceived analogy with Impressionism. Debussy’s ‘visualities,’ however, stretched far beyond this movement, taking in Post-Impressionist techniques and the philosophies and ideas of both French and Belgian Symbolists among others – all of whom demonstrate certain parallels between subject matter, the articulation of specific procedural techniques and emotional correlations with Debussy’s music. Sometimes his compositional strategies form direct equivalences with artists such as Seurat and Monet’s later practices.

Many studies over the last sixty years have articulated the notion of visual ideas within the French composer’s pieces, but this study proposes that they were far more prevalent than previously supposed, not only in his songs and opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, where such associations are more obvious, but also encompassed within the fabric of his more abstract instrumental works. Claude Debussy’s life straddles the second half of the nineteenth centurywhen both music and art underwent radical changes, away from that which followed a given format or was purely representational towards the pursuit of the ‘inner self’ and the ‘idée.’ He became the catalyst for the movement towards a modern music in his challenge to the Romantic aesthetic, taking in modality and atonality and all that that allowed. In Debussy’s coalescence of musical and visual correspondances, we find a composer who was truly visionary in his outlook.

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