A study day on


in Music & the Arts

Helen Semple | soprano,   Philip Salmon | tenor

Linda Howarth | flute,   Jeremy Limb | piano

presented by

Peter Medhurst

10.30 – 4.00 pm on Monday 6th April 2020

The Menuhin Hall, Stoke D’Abernon, Surrey KT11 3QQ

Tickets £38 through the box office 08700 842020, or online here


As the word ‘impressionism’ was first used in painting as a term of abuse, so the first recorded use of the word in connection with music – in 1887 regarding Debussy’s Printemps – was derogatory as well.  However, by 1905, the term was applied frequently to musical compositions and it was Debussy himself who maintained that music was able to put impressionist’s theories into practice more fully than painting was able to do, since music could represent the play of light fluidly, where as painting could only present it statically, and therefore unnaturally. This study day examines some of the great works of Debussy (Preludes, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune) as well as key works by Fauré and Ravel, side by side with the world of late 19th century French art (Monet, Degas, Renoir, Manet) to determine whether or not there is a link between impressionism in music and impressionism in art.

The first exhibition of The Impressionists

Between 15th April and 15th May 1874, one of the most famous exhibitions of all time took place at what had been Nadar’s photographic studios, at 35 boulevard des Capucines.  To make sure that as many people as possible could attend, the exhibition was open not only during the daytime, but also in the evening from 8 – 10 pm, allowing the working classes a chance to attend as well.  Many people went to the exhibition over the weeks and a variety of opinions was formed about the paintings that were on display.

The exhibition was the first showing of works by artists we now call The Impressionists and included painters such as Monet, Renoir, and Bazille.

The exhibition was reviewed by the critic, Louis Leroy of the Le Charivari magazine on 25th April, and his analysis of Impressions: Sunrise by Monet (above) has become famous over the years for all the wrong reasons:

Impressionism, [he wrote] I was sure of it. I was just telling myself that since I was impressed, there had to be some impressionism in it . . . . . And what freedom, what sense of workmanship! Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished than that seascape

Fortunately, the art critic, Jules-Antoine Castagnary, was more perceptive in his remarks:

They are impressionists in the sense that they paint not the landscape, but the sensation that the landscape produces.  The word itself has passed into their language: in the catalogue the Sunrise by Monet is not called landscape, but impression. Therefore they take leave of reality and enter the realms of idealism.

One of the principal paintings shown at the exhibition was Monet’s Wild Poppies of 1873 (above) and in it we can see Monet’s wife and son standing at the top of the rise, silhouetted against the line of trees that stretches along the whole width of the canvas. The figures emerge again in the lower right, where their journey down the embankment has left behind traces in the tall grass and poppies.  This isn’t a classical landscape of the Greek or Italian tradition, but a simple picture that conveys the pleasure of an afternoon walk by city dwellers through an inauspicious corner of the French countryside.  Nonetheless, the painting conveyed ideas quite different to anything that had gone before and fell in perfectly with Castagnary’s remarks they paint not the landscape, but the sensation that the landscape produces.

Monet’s Impressions: Sunrise painted at Le Havre a year before was also an impression, but this time one of water and sky, where seamlessly and imperceptibly, water and sky appear to merge together.  Monet had achieved this through:

a) the use of pale colours,

b) the use of blurred outlines, with an avoidance of sharp contours and edges,

c) and the creation of a suggestion of an image, rather than a flat description of it.

Parallel techniques used in the world of musical composition

Parallel techniques can be found in the world of musical composition at the time – particularly among the French composers – who interpreted their subject matter in similarly ‘impressionistic’ ways.  They achieved their goals through the use of less conventional musical techniques and harmonies and the result was an entirely new sound world.  The most prominant composer in this field was Claude Debussy (below), but many other composers, including Fauré, Chausson, Scriabin, Ravel and Delius, displayed similar approaches and techniques in their works.

Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune

One of the most famous pieces by Debussy that critics claim leans heavily in the direction of impressionism is the orchestral work Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune of 1894. The work was inspired by Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem which describes the sensual experiences of a faun who has just woken up from his afternoon sleep and who goes on to discuss his meetings in a dreamlike monologue with several nymphs during the morning.

Debussy said ‘the music of this prelude is a very free illustration of Mallarmé’s beautiful poem. By no means does it claim to be a synthesis of it. Rather there is a succession of scenes through which pass the desires and dreams of the faun in the heat of the afternoon.’

The dreamlike nature of Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune is in part suggested by the improvisatory aspect of the solo flute writing at the opening of the work, where the listener may feel that the music is being made up by the performer as he goes along.  However, the score is anything but the product of chance and has been constructed with meticulous detail in order to impress on the listener Debussy’s precise interpretation of the poetry.  Lazy, sliding chromatic notes in the opening flute solo, delicate orchestration in the woodwind, a wash of notes in the harp’s initial glissando, as well as carefully managed expression and dynamic markings, all contribute to convey the impression of the life of the faun in the heat of a summer’s day.

Sources of Debussy’s inspiration

Although the starting point for so many of Debussy’s compositions was subject matter of an intensely visual nature (his piano piece, Poissons d’or is said to have been inspired by a scene displaying a golden fish on a Japanese lacquered screen that Debussy had in his study), Debussy was particularly inspired by the works of the Symbolist poets.  The manifesto of these poets was that art should represent absolute truths that could only be described indirectly, and while Debussy’s responses to to their poetry was frequently programmatic in element, his music goes far beyond the literal reflections of life found in The Four Seasons by Vivaldi, for example, or in The Fantastic Symphony by Berlioz.  Rather than crafting clever musical pictures, Debussy is more concerned with creating musical impressions that will excite the senses and the emotions.

La Cathédrale engloutie

A case in point would be Debussy’s prelude for piano La Cathédrale engloutie (The Submerged Cathedral) published in 1910.  The work is inspired by a Breton legend telling of a submerged cathedral that rises out of the sea near the coast of the Island of Ys.  As the cathedral appears out of the water, the sounds of priests chanting, bells chiming, and the organ playing can be heard coming across the sea.

The opening of the Prelude is a series of haunting chords that rise up from the depths of the piano, as if mirroring the emergence of the cathedral out of the depths of the sea.  Again, however, Debussy’s preocupation here is with generating a feeling of mystery and expectation, rather than with the creation of a slavish musical picture.  Various innovative musical ideas are brought into play by Debussy in order to achieve this.  Widely spaced, sustained chords with muted dynamics pave the way for rising solomn chords that avoid the use of major thirds, giving the tonal palette a hollowness and an austerity that is strongly reminiscent of organum – a primative form of Western harmony involving lines of parallel motion.  Early harmonisations of plainchant employed the technique of organum, and given the reference in the legend to priests chanting as the cathedral rises up out of the water, this would seem entirely appropriate.

Also, despite the G minor feel of the opening music, the harmonies lean towards ‘modality’ rather than ‘tonality’ (reminder: a mode – Dorian, Mixolydian, Phrygian etc – is a type of musical scale that has a set of characteristic melodic behaviours and pre-date the major/minor systems of tonality that evolved in the late 17th century).  By astutely avoiding the use of F sharp (the leading note of G minor that defines the key) Debussy gives the music an harmonic freedom – a blurred-edged quality – that allows it to go far beyond the laws of conventional modulation in the traditional major and minor key systems.

Monet and Debussy

Could it be then, that Monet’s use of pale colours in Impressions: Sunrise has a parallel in the subtle dynamics and hollow harmonies of Debussy’s score?  Could it be that Monet’s blurred outlines and avoidance of sharp contours and edges in his canvas is mirrored by Debussy’s avoidance of the sharp-edged charateristics of major/minor keys, where the aurally illusive and softer-edged modes are preferred? And, could Monet’s ‘suggestion’ of an image, rather than a flat description of it, have a counterpart in Debussy’s preference for the music to be suggestive and atmospheric, rather than literal?

Join us for Impressionism in Music & the Arts on the 6th April at the Menuhin Hall to find out.

The performers

Helen Semple held a Choral Award at Cambridge University before going on to postgraduate performance studies at Trinity College of Music. Operatic roles include both Susanna (Candlelight Opera) and the Countess in Le Nozze di Figaro; Countess Adele in Rossini’s Le Comte Ory, Oscar in Un Ballo in Maschera, Adele (both Guildford Opera), Micaela (Opera Brava), Margarita in Gounod’s Faust, and Pamina, not to mention playing Donna Anna in two versions of Don Giovanni, Mozart’s and Gazzaniga’s, the latter with Bampton Classical Opera.

Linda Howarth won a scholarship to study the flute with Clare Southworth at Wells Cathedral School, Somerset at the age of twelve.  Following this she went on to become a full time student at Trinity College of Music, London.  Linda graduated in 1995 having being awarded the Fellowship.  During her time at College, she won – among other prizes – the Albert Cooper competition at the International Flute Festival at Stratford-on-Avon.  As well as gaining a reputation as a gifted teacher, Linda holds down a busy recital schedule and performs regularly in the British Isles and abroad.  No stranger to the radio, she has given recitals on Classic FM Friday Live, and Radio 3.

Philip Salmon was a chorister at St Paul’s Cathedral and an Exhibition Scholar at the Royal College of Music.  He has performed around the world in opera (the Royal Opera House, the Paris Châtelet, New York City Opera) and concert (conducted by Sir Colin Davies, Pierre Boulez, Sir Roger Norrington, Sir Yehudi Menuhin), led vocal master classes in Britain, Italy and Argentina, and broadcast on television and radio in Britain and Europe (BBC Radio 3’s In Tune, The Vampyr on BBC2 and Channel 4). His recording of Mendelssohn’s Ave Maria has just been released on Naxos.

Jeremy Limb read music at Queen’s College, Oxford, then studied piano at the Royal College of Music. He has broadcast on BBC Radio 3, given numerous recitals around the country, and won 1st Prize in the 18th Brant National Piano Competition.  He now works as a freelance musician in various capacities – soloist, accompanist, sight-reader, repetiteur (including work for English National Opera).  He is also a writer and performer of comedy and has had material used on BBC1 by Harry Enfield, has written and performed on ITV2, BBC1, BBC2, BBC3, BBC Radios 1, 2 and 4, and was nominated for the LWT New Comedy Writing Award for his play ‘Play Wisty For Me’ – The Life of Peter Cook.

Peter Medhurst  singer, harpsichordist, organist and lecturer – travels throughout Europe and the British Isles presenting his ideas on music and the arts.  He is a well known face to members of the Arts Society and other cultural organisations and each year presents between 80 and 100 lecture-recitals on topics ranging from The Music of Vivaldi and his Relationship to Venice, and The Genius of Beethoven, to Music Inspired by Paintings, and The Music of Russia.  Peter also sets aside time to devise and lead tours abroad for small groups of art and music connoisseurs. His particular interests are centred on the music, art and history of Vienna, Salzburg, Berlin, Dresden, Venice, Rome, Madrid, and Naples.  Peter trained at the Royal College of Music and at the Mozarteum in Salzburg. He also studied privately with Edgar Evans (voice) and Ruth Dyson (harpsichord).