Labels are useful but rather dangerous things. The move from the satisfying act of putting things in neat categories to blanket stereotyping can happen almost unconsciously. This is particularly true in the arts where the much valued qualities of originality and recognisable individuality can make the labellers lives – the art historians and musicologists (whose retrospective job is to tidy the world for us) – pretty miserable.
So, two labels to explore: Impressionism and Expressionism. Their main musical representatives also come from the national and cultural divide between France and Germany, (an extremely reluctant) Debussy and (mostly) early middle period Schönberg.
But, irrespective of whether they’re justified or accurate, what is certainly true is that the labels give us a good excuse to examine this fascinating period in music history.
I’ve included the composer’s brief description of each movement:
Nuages renders the immutable aspect of the sky and the slow, solemn motion of the clouds, fading away in grey tones lightly tinged with white:
Fêtes gives the vibrating, dancing rhythm of the atmosphere with sudden flashes of light. There is also the episode of the procession (a dazzling fantastic vision), which passes through the festive scene and becomes merged in it. But the background remains resistantly the same: the festival with its blending of music and luminous dust participating in the cosmic rhythm:
Sirènes depicts the sea and its countless rhythms and presently, amongst the waves silvered by the moonlight, is heard the mysterious song of the Sirens as they laugh and pass on:
Schönberg’s opera, Erwartung [Expectation](1909) emerges from the psychological darkness of post-Freudian Vienna. In it, its one character, a woman, searches a wood at night for her lover, only to discover his corpse. A nightmare for which the composer conjures an astonishingly iridescent score, moving between shimmering, silver moonlight and haunted, stygian shadow.
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