Impressionism | The Canadian Encyclopedia





Impressionism. Name applied to the work of a group of French painters active in the late 1800s, and most aptly to that of Renoir, Monet, Pissarro, and Sisley, who attempted to capture certain elusive essences of their subjects - usually landscapes, interiors, or figures - by reproducing the transitory effulgences and shadows caused by the refractions of changing light.

The term was used first in music to describe those works of Claude Debussy which attempt to create the fleeting pictures, sounds, and moods of nature through a colouristic - as distinct from an expository or structural - use of melody and harmony and through a subtle exploitation of instrumental and vocal timbres. In Debussy's piano music this involved new applications of touch and of pedal technique.

Jean Blake Robinson (Coulthard) was among the first to introduce the music of Debussy to Canada. She is known to have played several of his piano pieces ca 1908 and drew favourable press notice for her performance in 1910 of Jardins sous la pluie (1903). The Toronto String Quartette and the Dubois String Quartet of Montreal both had played the Debussy Quartet in their respective cities by 1912. Alberto Guerrero, who arrived in Toronto in 1919, also was a Debussy interpreter of distinction. The Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun was played in Montreal in 1919 by the visiting orchestra of the Société des Concerts du Conservatoire de Paris under Messager, and Nuages and Fêtes were performed there in 1921 by the Boston SO under Monteux. The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir sang La Damoiselle élue in 1921. Harry Adaskin and Frances Marr made a specialty of the Debussy Sonata (and of Delius' Third Sonata in the 1930s). The pianist Léo-Pol Morin, with the mezzo-soprano Cédia Brault and the violinist Robert Imandt, presented the first Canadian festival of Debussy's music in 1927 in Montreal, but Morin had begun playing Debussy there as early as 1918. Stanley Gardner was another early exponent of the piano music of Debussy.

Pieces by W.O. Forsyth and J.H. Anger in the early 1900s revealed an impressionistic tendency, deriving not so much from Debussy as indirectly from English proponents such as Frederick Delius and Cyril Scott. In French Canada, signs of an influence from impressionism also appeared after 1910 in Rodolphe Mathieu's Trois Préludes and Chevauchée for piano, and later, to a degree, in the works of Champagne, Gagnier, and Gratton. Mathieu and Champagne studied in Paris; Mathieu with Roussel, d'Indy, and Aubert; and Champagne - the more influential - with André Gedalge, who had been a student, along with Debussy, in Massenet's class. Gedalge went on to become the teacher of Ravel, Milhaud, and Honegger, and taught Champagne counterpoint and fugue. In such works as Suite canadienne (1922), Images du Canada français (1943), and Symphonie gaspésienne (1945) Champagne integrated the modal character of the folk music of his homeland, the academicism of traditional polyphony, and the sensuous subtlety of impressionism.

Among Champagne's pupils François Morel, in Esquisse (1947) and Antiphonie (1953), revealed himself as a neo-impressionist, and even his later works show an impressionist's concern with fine shadings of timbre and colour. In the works of another Champagne pupil, Gilles Tremblay - particularly those of the 1970s: Solstices, Oralléluiants, Compostelle I - the preoccupation with the cultivation of overtone sonics and the devising of sounds which are an ethereal by-product rather than a simple product of instrumental activity lead to a kind of abstract impressionism founded in the mysteries and ephemera of sound itself.

The early works of Leslie Mann and most of the output of Jean Coulthard (and of several of her pupils, such as Michael Conway Baker) derive much from impressionism. Norma Beecroft has acknowledged Debussy as an early and continuing influence; and even in her 'concerto grosso,' the Improvvisazioni Concertanti No. 2, the effect is not so much of structure as of an impression of structure; of structure reflected in a wayward eye and delicately sketched. This 'de-stabilized' effect is enhanced by the soloists' extemporizations.

A brief reference also should be made to the new impressionism which originated in Europe in the late 1950s with Krzysztof Penderecki, and György Ligeti, and others. This style, which shows a predilection for low dynamic levels and chromatic clusters of varying widths within a static framework, was not influential in Canada until the late 1960s, and then primarily in the works of Harry Freedman (Graphic I, Graphic II), R. Murray Schafer (Epitaph for Moonlight), André Prévost (Évanescence), Derek Healey (The Lost Traveller's Dream), and John Wyre (Utau Kane NoWa), to name a few.