Claude Debussy: Refracting His Music through Art

Paul Signac (French, 1863–1935)
The Seine at Les Andelys, 1886
Oil on canvas
Norton Simon Art Foundation, M.1968.27.P

While a student at the Paris Conservatoire, Debussy set a poem to music for voice and piano by his friend Paul Bourget: Beau soir (Beautiful Evening). The text paints a picture of nature—a river painted pink by the sunset, a warm breeze ruffling fields of wheat—as a reminder to find the contentment and peace that these glimpses of nature appear to offer, for life has a way of slipping by, much as the river does to the sea.

Listen to the way the flowing triplet line in the piano both contrasts and merges with the duple rhythm in the vocal line, suggestive of the different vibrations heard in the elements present—again the wind and the water—and how they play and interact with each other to create a complex mood. They are ultimately complimentary, similar to the way that these sounds of nature can seem harmonious when apprehended by human senses.