Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 19, No. 2, 2020
  Current Issue  
  Back Issues  
Robert J. Lewis
  Senior Editor
Bernard Dubé
  Contributing Editors
David Solway
Louis René Beres
Nick Catalano
Chris Barry
Don Dewey
Howard Richler
Gary Olson
Jordan Adler
Andrew Hlavacek
Daniel Charchuk
  Music Editors Serge Gamache
Diane Gordon
  Arts Editor
Lydia Schrufer
Mady Bourdage
Chantal Levesque Denis Beaumont
Emanuel Pordes
  Past Contributors
  Noam Chomsky
Mark Kingwell
Naomi Klein
Arundhati Roy
Evelyn Lau
Stephen Lewis
Robert Fisk
Margaret Somerville
Mona Eltahawy
Michael Moore
Julius Grey
Irshad Manji
Richard Rodriguez
Navi Pillay
Ernesto Zedillo
Pico Iyer
Edward Said
Jean Baudrillard
Bill Moyers
Barbara Ehrenreich
Leon Wieseltier
Nayan Chanda
Charles Lewis
John Lavery
Tariq Ali
Michael Albert
Rochelle Gurstein
Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

french music



Nick Catalano is a TV writer/producer and Professor of Literature and Music at Pace University. He reviews books and music for several journals and is the author of Clifford Brown: The Life and Art of the Legendary Jazz Trumpeter, New York Nights: Performing, Producing and Writing in Gotham , A New Yorker at Sea,, Tales of a Hamptons Sailor and his most recent book, Scribble from the Apple. For Nick's reviews, visit his website:

With a conceptual reportorial coup, the New York Philharmonic celebrated the legacy of French Impressionism initiated by Claude Debussy, continued by a small coterie of composers, and brought into the 20th century evolving into a tonal revolution. On March 5th guest conductor Louis Langrée led the orchestra in performances of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and his triptych Nocturnes, Maurice Ravel’s Shéhérazade and Alexander Scriabin’s Le Poème de l’extase (The Poem of Ecstasy). These strategically selected compositions successfully capture impressionism’s naissance and short-lived golden age.

The New York Philharmonic performed flawlessly. The orchestra continues to ripen its magic and in this concert rendered the languorous subtleties of the impressionistic sounds with mesmeric dynamism. Necromantic chantings delivered by the Women’s Chorus from the Juilliard School brilliantly penetrated Debussy’s mysticism while bewitching emittances from Isabel Leonard delicately captured Ravel’s cantillated sounds.

Even though Debussy vigorously rejected the term ‘Impressionism’ it is more helpful than most ‘isms’ which try to identify the essence of a style. Debussy’s achievement in liberating European music from its tonal and rhythmic rigidities cannot be underestimated as it has been all too often.

Wordsworth once proclaimed that imagination rules when “the light of sense goes out . . . with a flash that has revealed the invisible world . . .” This observation delivered at the beginning of the 19th century was a clarion call for modern Romanticism. Keats followed up on this notion probing the subjective and psychological: “Heard melodies are sweet but those unheard are sweeter.” Shelley mused about mystical and incorporeal reality uttering “The awful shadow of some unseen power/ Floats though unseen among us.” These works succeeded in focusing attention on those corners of the human mind previously ignored but destined to preoccupy science (Freud, Jung, Adler) and art to the present day.

The tradition where intellect was held as the singular apotheosis of achievement and the human imagination virtually ignored became vigorously challenged in France.

In writing, Alfred de Musset, Victor Hugo, Francois-René de Chateaubriand, Alfred de Vigny and Stephan Mallarmé (a conspicuous Debussy influence) ushered in the power of imagination with revolutionary new forms. In painting the absolute power of the neo-classical salons was finally fractured by Renoir, Monet, Degas, Manet, Pissarro and a host of other impressionists who led the world toward further exploration of the mysteries of the imagination. And in music there was Debussy.

The New York Philharmonic concert arrived on the heels of two connected writings -- Stephen Walsh’s recent Debussy bio, A Painter in Sound (Knopf) and a review of the book by renown contemporary composer John Adams. Adams unequivocally referenced Debussy as “the quintessential French composer” whose achievement was “miraculous.” In his incisive review of the Walsh bio, Adams articulately noted the Frenchman’s “liberation” of magnetic chords from the cause and effect “grammar” of earlier music. Together, with the employment of whole-tone scales, traditional chordal relationships were thus left behind with chords free to “float” from each other in connections which are sometimes purposively ambiguous.

The effect of these and other Debussy innovations allowed the music to capture the mysticism of Nature in compositions such as “La Mer” as well as the works noted above. Nature was seen without interfering humans as in paintings by J.M.W. Turner, and the works of the aforementioned French painters. The music pursued Nature as the same source of imaginative energy that we noted in Wordsworth’s pronouncement. Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Fawn is the classic example. If one traces the literature, the art and the music of the figures just noted, the 19th century movement from Romanticism to Impressionism becomes readily apparent.

The Philharmonic concert was perhaps most notable in illustrating Debussy’s influence on the music that followed him. If he was the first major composer to incorporate newly heard sounds into his works, Ravel, 13 years his junior, was not far behind. He openly acknowledged the influence of Debussy when he wrote Scheherazade in 1904 and credited his senior with his movement into a fascination for the Orient which this composition also illustrates. Here he invoked the hexatonic scale of the Far East and began writing songs reflecting this ‘oriental inspired Impressionism.’ In 1910 Ravel produced a multicultural collection of this music for a competition announced by the House of Song in Moscow.

Which brings us to the third composer selected for the NY Philharmonic’s concert -- Alexander Scriabin. The French composers’ impressionistic adventures had obviously captured the imagination of the diminutive Russian (he was barely five-foot-one) who had studied piano and composition alongside his friend Sergei Rachmaninoff, but by 1905 had gone in a far different direction from him. In that year he began composing “The Poem of Ecstasy” and orchestrated it in the next few years. The new compositional ideas he gleaned from the impressionists need an unusually large orchestra which the NY Philharmonic concert amply provided. The work is certainly not as well-known as the music of Debussy and Ravel but it clearly evidences how their new ideas influenced Scriabin.

Sergei Prokofiev was the first to acknowledge Scriabin’s novel notions when he said “Both the harmonic and the thematic material, and the voice-leading in the counterpoint were completely new.” The Philharmonic’s performance of Scriabin was conspicuously gratifying to my ears. I had only heard scattered recordings of “Ecstasy” in the past and hearing it live at David Geffen Hall was a huge treat. As one of the last concerts before COVID-19 caused Lincoln Center to cancel its performance seasons, it will remain a hallmark evening far into the future.

The musical achievement of the initial French impressionists extends to the present day. Hard upon the music discussed here Arnold Schoenberg commenced his work in free atonality. In 1908, with his first explicitly atonal piece -- the second string quartet (op. 10) -- he constructed the last movement with no key signature marking his formal divorce from diatonic harmonies. The long litany of composers and compositions influenced by his atonal experiments has necessitated a mountain of critical commentary. But alluding to Schoenberg at the conclusion of this writing on Debussy and the initial French Impressionism is a good place to complete this discussion.

One is hopeful that the NY Philharmonic will continue programming music as intriguing and as excellently performed as the show reviewed here. It was truly a magnificent evening.


Email Optional  
Author or Title

Brilliant synopsis. For me the greatest of Debussy's works is his "dramme lyrique" Pelleas et Melisande, which exemplifies observation and is the apotheosis of the "impressionistic" form in vocal music. Other great composers of French vocal music are Faure, Ravel, DuParc, Messaien and Boulez in art song and Berlioz, Massenet Bizet, Debussy and Messsaien (Saint Framcois, again his masterpiece.) In the mean time, is there anything you can/'t write about superbly, Nick? -- "Jim" McCourt

By Nick Catalano:
D-Day at Normandy: A Recollection Pt. II
D-Day at Normandy: A Recollection Pt. I
Kenneth Branagh & Shakespeare
Remembering Maynard Ferguson
Reviewers & Reviewing
The Vagaries of Democracy
Racism Debunked
The Truth Writer
#Me Too Cognizance in Ancient Greece
Above the Drowning Sea
A New York Singing Salon
Rockers Retreading
Polish Jewry-Importance of Historical Museums
Sexual Relativity and Gender Revolution
Inquiry into Constitutional Originalism
Aristotle: Film Critic
The Maw of Deregulated Capitalism
Demagogues: The Rhetoric of Barbarism
The Guns of August
Miles Ahead and Born to Be Blue
Manon Lescaut @The Met
An American in Paris
What We Don't Know about Eastern Culture
Black Earth (book review)
Cuban Jazz
HD Opera - Game Changer
Film Treatment of Stolen Art
Stains and Blemishes in Democracy
Intersteller (film review)
Shakespeare, Shelley & Woody Allen
Mystery and Human Sacrifice at the Parthenon
Carol Fredette (Jazz)
Amsterdam (book review)
Vermeer Nation
The Case for Da Vinci's Demons


Bahamas Relief Fund
Film Ratings at Arts & Opinion - Montreal
2016 Festival Nouveau Cinema de Montreal, Oct. 05-16st, (514) 844-2172
Lynda Renée: Chroniques Québécois - Blog
Montreal Guitar Show July 2-4th (Sylvain Luc etc.). border=
Photo by David Lieber:
Valid HTML 4.01!
Privacy Statement Contact Info
Copyright 2002 Robert J. Lewis