Claude Debussy: Refracting His Music through Art

Claude Debussy: Refracting His Music through Art

The Norton Simon Museum is pleased to collaborate with the Los Angeles Opera on an audio tour exploring the legacy of French composer Claude Debussy (1862–1918) and his relationship to the visual artists of his time.

In conjunction with Los Angeles Opera’s production of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande (March 25–April 16), Maestro James Conlon, the Richard Seaver Music Director, has selected nine paintings from the Museum’s 19th-century galleries and narrated a tour that pairs these works with selections from Debussy’s oeuvre. We have created this online version for our audiences to enjoy from home. Scroll through the pages using the navigation above.

As you listen to Maestro Conlon’s musical accompaniments, we invite you to draw your own connections between the auditory and visual experiences of art.

Read transcript

Claude Debussy, Danse Bohémienne (1880)
Recording used: Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Complete Works for Solo Piano, Vol. 1, Decca Catalogue No 4520222, released 1996

Emily Talbot:  Hello, my name is Emily Talbot, and I’m the Chief Curator of the Norton Simon Museum. We are delighted to be partnering with the Los Angeles Opera for this musical tour and we invite you to draw connections between works of art in the Museum’s nineteenth-century galleries and the lively auditory experience that Maestro Conlon has curated. We hope you enjoy it. 

James Conlon: Hello, I’m James Conlon, Music Director of the Los Angeles Opera. The galleries you are now crossing into at the Norton Simon Museum feature a selection of French Impressionist works by iconic painters of the late 19th and early 20th centuries: Edgar Degas, Édouard Vuillard, Paul Signac, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Claude Monet.

As you move through these galleries, I’ll offer musical pairings for selected works to complement their moods and themes.

The music I’ve chosen to accompany you while we visit these works of art are all by one composer, Claude Debussy, one of the giants of his time and of French music over the centuries. His life, which span from 1862 to 1918, saw two centuries of enormous cultural changes. He was highly innovative and influential on the future of music and was a contemporary of those artists whose works you are viewing today.

Debussy frequented many of the same social circles as these artists, engaging in a constant exchange of ideas, aesthetics and experiences. The songs of Debussy’s music are often compared to the visual effects of Impressionism: dreamy ambiguity, play of movement and light, undeniably modern at the time, but whose substance has assured it a permanent place in classical music. The orchestra and piano were his sonic canvas. I became enamored of his music from the time I started playing some of his music as a student. Still in my teens, I fell in love with his only opera, Pelléas et Mélisande. It was to become a lifelong, almost obsessive passion. I began studies with my conducting teacher at the Juilliard School, Jean Morel, one of the leading Debussy interpreters of his time.

This spring, Los Angeles Opera presents Pelléas et Mélisande for the first time in over two decades. Debussy was deeply influenced by the visual arts, though he disliked when people referred to his music as Impressionistic. That term, which came to define the entire genre in music and art, was meant to be derogatory, and definitely not intended as a compliment. He was generally resistant to any attempts to categorize his music or his artistic goals; as he once remarked to one of his former teachers from his Conservatory days, “There is no theory. You merely have to listen. Pleasure is the law.”