Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Is Eric Whitacre a neo-impressionist?


Is Eric Whitacre a neo-impressionist?

To begin answering these questions, I believe we need a clear definition of impressionism and neo-impressionism. Thus I have quoted applicable excerpts from an authoritative musical reference, Grove Music. Grove’s describes impressionism first with its origins in art and then applies those philosophies to music:
“A philosophical, aesthetic and polemical term borrowed from late 19th-century French painting. It was first used to mock Monet’s Impression, Sunrise, painted in 1873 and shown in the first of eight Impressionist exhibitions (1874–86), and later to categorize the work of such artists as Manet, Degas, Pissaro, Sisley, Renoir, Cézanne and Regnault. ‘Impressionist’ also describes aspects of Turner, Whistler, the English Pre-Raphaelites and certain American painters, as well as the literary style of Poe and the Goncourt brothers, and the free verse and fluidity of reality in symbolist poetry…
In music the association between Impressionism and innovation was more short-lived and more narrowly restricted to Debussy and those whose music resembled or was influenced by him. These composers’ attempt to explore the fleeting moment and the mystery of life led them to seek musical equivalents for water, fountains, fog, clouds and the night, and to substitute sequences of major 2nds, unresolved chords and other sound-colours for precise designs, solid, clear forms, and logical developments. To convey a sense of the intangible flux of time, they used extended tremolos and other kinds of ostinatos as well as a variety of rhythmic densities. But, like the painters who stressed not new realities but new perceptions of it, Debussy explained that this music’s ‘unexpected charm’ came not so much from the chords or timbres themselves – already found in the vocabularies of composers such as Field, Chopin, Liszt, Grieg, Franck, Balakirev, Borodin and Wagner – but from their ‘mise en place’, ‘the rigorous choice of what precedes and what follows’. For Debussy form was the result of a succession of colours and rhythms ‘de couleurs et de temps rythmés’ or, as Dukas put it, ‘a series of sensations rather than the deductions of a musical thought’. This concept in turn demanded new approaches to performance. In interpreting Ravel’s Jeux d’eau, the pianist Ricardo Viñes used the pedals liberally when playing fast-moving passages in the high registers ‘to bring out the hazy impression of vibrations in the air’.
Yet to describe Debussy’s aesthetic as Impressionist is not entirely accurate, for his notion of musical line was as neo-Impressionist as it was Impressionist, and his musical innovations owed much to his predecessors. Like the Impressionist painters, who responded to Haussmann’s transformation of Paris and sought to disguise the banality of its forms, Debussy gave the musical line a decorative function. Eschewing conventional melodies, he fragmented themes into short motives and used repetitive figurations resembling those of Liszt and in Russia, The Five. Quickly moving passages wherein overall direction and texture are more audible than individual notes and rhythms give the effect of quasi-improvisation. At other moments in his and other Impressionist music, two kinds of line interact. As in Monet’s and Renoir’s paintings where sketchlike images of people vibrating with the rhythms of nature are juxtaposed with the straight lines of Haussmann’s gardens and avenues or industrial railroads and bridges, sinuous arabesques in this music, liberated from their dependence on functional harmony and sometimes incorporating medieval, whole-tone or pentatonic scales, give a sense of timelessness, of a hypnotic turning in place, while clearly etched tunes focus the listener’s attention. Here, however, the resemblance to Impressionist painting breaks down. While the straight lines of Impressionist painting came from modern life, Debussy’s melodies were often derived from folksongs, as in music by The Five. Reflecting the return of traditional values more characteristic of neo-Impressionist art, they are simple and hark back to earlier times or pastoral settings, often with a nationalist subtext. This is also the case in music imitating or incorporating Spanish popular song (such as that of Ravel, Albéniz, and Falla), or the Celtic traditions of Brittany or western Ireland. The strongly melodic character of Ravel’s music likewise places him outside the purely Impressionist style.”[1]
The article includes information about neo-impressionism and post-impressionism.
“It is at this point that one should speak of the emergence of musical post-Impressionism, for in its embrace of line, colour and form from another perspective, and constructions that bring pleasure to the mind as well as the senses, this aesthetic resembles that of post-Impressionist painters like Gauguin and Matisse. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring perhaps best exemplifies this tendency in music. In one sense it extends the Impressionist notion of sound for its own sake; in another, as Jacques Rivière put it, The Rite rejects the ‘sauce’ of its predecessors’ music, with its language of nuance and transitions, in favour of larger-scale juxtapositions of violent emotions, brutal rhythms, robust colours and a more advanced harmonic language that includes polytonality. Both aspects of post-Impressionism laid the foundation for a Franco-Russian form of modernism. Respighi in Italy, Schmitt and Dukas in France, and Bax and Holst in Great Britain also represent this duality, in different ways. Perhaps only Satie, among French composers of the time, rejected Impressionism completely. With humour and irony he attempted to rid music of its literary and painterly associations, setting the stage for the neo-classicism of the 1920s.
During this period and after Debussy’s death in 1918 a large number and wide variety of composers, some of them falsely called post-Impressionists, continued to use Impressionist techniques, albeit sporadically. Among others, in England there were Delius, Vaughan Williams, Scott, Bridge and Ireland; in France, Koechlin, Aubert, Louis Vuillemin, Ropartz, Roger-Ducasse, Ladmirault, Caplet, Lili Boulanger and later Messiaen; in Hungary, Bartók and Kodály; in Poland, Szymanowski; in Italy, Malipiero and Puccini; and in the USA, Griffes. Even at the Schola Cantorum, a Parisian school which inculcated different ideals, Impressionism made an impact on composers. Roussel, Albéniz and Le Flem reconciled the harmonic freedom and timbral nuances of Impressionist music with the solid construction, linear clarity and rigorous logic demanded by d’Indy and his followers. Ravel, who Landormy claims helped discredit Impressionism through his embrace of classical forms, continued to use Impressionist approaches to harmony and timbre even after his style changed around 1908. For a time the aesthetic even appealed to Schoenberg: although the emotional content of Gurrelieder is Expressionist – meaning that its form and language are subordinated to an inner resonance in the composer – its mystical concept of nature is altogether Impressionist.
Despite the pejorative connotations they have acquired since the 1920s (association with vague lines and structure, a style that lacks vitality), and revisionist notions of Debussy in the 1970s as a symbolist by scholars and as a modernist by composers, the Impressionist and neo-Impressionist aesthetics continue to exercise an important influence on music, especially in French- and English-speaking countries. Other traditions have found it fairly easy to assimilate certain elements of Impressionism because of its formal freedom and openness to non-Western philosophies of sound and music. In jazz Impressionism has permeated the harmonies of Duke Ellington, the orchestral textures of Gil Evans, and the piano styles of Art Tatum and Cecil Taylor. In the film music of Korngold, Herrmann and their followers it has affected audiences’ perceptions of images on the screen. In Japan Takemitsu incorporated elements of Impressionism to infuse his music with Western nuances. In the USA Glass and Reich used simple, repeated Impressionist-like figurations, albeit in the service of another aesthetic, to slow down time in their early minimalist music. More recently a generation of French composers born in the mid-1940s – Grisey, Murail, Dufourt and others – have returned to the Impressionist notion of sound as an object of research. Using the computer to study the nature of timbre with scientific precision, they have also renewed attention to harmony as a factor of timbre, and composed ‘spectral’ music based on contrasts of registers, speeds and intensities. Misunderstanding of the term ‘Impressionism’ has thus never kept musicians from the music itself, and in borrowing from various times, places and cultures, the aesthetic can be seen as a precursor to the cross-culturalism of what is marketed as World beat and other contemporary musics” (Groves).
What this article does not do is discuss many specific musical devices. It does mention the use of substituted sequences of major 2nds, unresolved chords and “clear forms” though it does not specify what these forms are. So for a more general idea of some specific musical devices I went to a much less reputable source, wikipedia, which provided a number of procedures used by impressionist composers. Their list included both major and minor scales as well as more “uncommon” scales such as the whole tone scale, the pentatonic scale and the church modes. The article also makes reference to the use of non-western techniques and sounds such as folk music. Both articles note the importance of successions of colors and rhythms.

So now we must approach the question, Is Eric Whitacre a neo-impressionist? Groves makes no mention of Whitacre, however wikipedia comments on his use of Whitacre Chords or 7th and 9th chords which add or do not add suspended 2nds and 4ths. It also disscusses his use of quartal and quintal chords and harmonies as well as his unconventional chord preogressions. Certainly these quartal and quintal harmonies can be recognized as being influenced by non-western music which gives his music a relationship to impressionistic music. Also he uses unusual harmonic progressions which have the harmonic freedom the grove article on impressionism discusses. This harmonic freedom was paired in both the impressionistic movement as well as by Whitacre with rhythmic force. Whitacre did so with mixed meters, compound meters, frequent meter changes and unusual rhythmic patterns.
In conclusion I feel Eric Whitacre is a neo-impressionist composer. He allows the freedom and non-western influences of the impressionist composers along with their solid, but unspecified form. Impressionism was innovation and Eric Whitacre did not lose that part of the magic in his composition. He did not mimic the past, but incorporated it.

[1] Jann Pasler. "Impressionism." In Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/50026 (accessed March 31, 2009).


  1. Damn, blogger.com is a piece of shit. I just tried writing a reply to this post, I arrow away and come back to find that blogger.com has dumped my post.

    I do not feel like rethinkiing and retyping what I had to say. And when next I do have something to say, I do not feel like wasting my breath on trying to get blogger.com to accept me.

  2. Don't let the machine WIN!!!!

    I always enjoy your blogs, don't give up now

  3. I am glad that we got the whole story of Impressionism/Neo-Impressionism. I still think it's funny how Grove can take something like a style of music and completely narrow it down to a couple of thousand words. :) I think that it is good to know exactly what we are talking about when we describe a genre and whether or not a composer fits into that classification. I agree with Dannica that Eric Whitacre incorporates the past into his music, but I still feel that it is too narrow of a genre to pigeon-hole him in. I know that putting a composer into a specific genre is an easy way to reference them, but I can't wait until there is a time when we look past just what style the composed in.