John Henry Twachtman’s (1853-1902) Waterfall, Greenwich (1890) is paired with “Mouvement,” from Claude Debussy’s (1862- 1918) Images (1905).
This art-music pairing and commentary are by Lindzy Volk.
Performed by Klára Körmendi, Piano. Naxos 8.550253. Used by permission.
In the woods of Connecticut, a waterfall disrupts the peace. The light peaks through the trees and reflects on a cascading waterfall. The reflection of the sun can be seen in the yellow strokes emanating from the top left-hand corner of the painting. The contrasting hues of pink and purple surrounding the left-hand corner evoke the distinctive shades of a sunrise or sunset.
Debussy’s “Mouvement” from Images for solo piano also features reflection, but it is a different type of mirroring; this one occurs when the flowing motives first heard in the right hand and the detached notes heard in the left hand seamlessly bounce between the hands. Observe the bouncing motives and light by listening to the piece while studying the art.
Cascading Water and Movement in Sound
To capture a moment in time, people of our era can simply snap a picture on their cell phone. In the same way, at the turn of the century impressionists in both art and music strove to capture a specific moment in time. Characteristics of impressionist art include an emphasis on light, movement, the size and quality of brush strokes, and the use of angles. Similarly, impressionist music often combines ambiguous tonal centers, shifting rhythms, and blending harmonies to evoke a sensuous or shimmering atmosphere. Waterfall, Greenwich by John Henry Twachtman and “Mouvement” from Images for solo piano by Claude Debussy exhibit these impressionistic techniques
Both works of art demonstrate the importance of color. There is an abundant variety of color in Waterfall, Greenwich. The juxtaposition of warm and cool colors causes all the colors to have more vibrancy. A similar contrast is to be found in Debussy’s “Mouvement”. A color in music is created through such elements as tone, texture, timbre, and harmony. In “Mouvement,” the two hands of the pianist create different colors.
“Mouvement” begins with detached notes in the left hand, which sound very cold because of their abruptness and brevity. Meanwhile, the right hand has a warmer quality created by the flowing fast notes. The conflict of the left and right hands starts when the right hand begins the repetitive flowing figures. The constant movement in the right hand creates energy. To me, the smoothness and energy of the figure creates a sensation of warmth. The sonorities of the chords also create certain colors. The left-hand notes are arranged in open fifths. An open fifth comprises two notes, five notes apart. Prior to impressionistic music, a pair of notes would be accompanied by a pitch that is located approximately midway between the other two to form a chord. Without this middle pitch, an open fifth sounds very cold and incomplete. Open fifths were uncommon in music prior to impressionism. In “Mouvement,” the open fifths in the left hand contrast with the right hand, which outlines various chords that sound more complete. These sonoristic characteristics of Debussy’s “Mouvement” are comparable to the complexities of color in Twachtman’s Waterfall, Greenwich.
Twachtman, like other impressionists, employed subjective color. When imagining a waterfall, one might think of earthy and warm colors that are typically found in nature. However, this painting features pink, purple, and other unrealistic colors. In the same way, Debussy used certain compositional techniques like open fifths that are not found in the music of the past centuries. These types of passages obscure the main scale, or tonic; instead of pointing toward a goal, they create a floating feeling. In a way, Debussy is being subjective with his use of harmony just as Twachtman uses unrealistic, yet expressive, colors.
The colors in Waterfall, Greenwich also depict light. The focus on light is a prime characteristic of the impressionistic era. Impressionism emphasizes the source of the light and how it is reflected. The light begins in the top right-hand corner. It blends into the bushes in the top left-hand corner and throughout the upper third of the painting. The light is further reflected in the various colors of the water. First, light is evident in the top of the waterfall, and then it shines through the cascading water. In particular, this reflection of light is apparent when the water gets thinner over the rocks. Finally, light also appears in the pool at the bottom of the waterfall.
In Debussy’s “Mouvement” from Images, the reflection of light is most apparent when the hands are shifting back and forth. One hand plays the detached notes, while the other hand plays the smooth figure; then they will switch. The shifting of the motifs between the hands is similar to the way the light in the painting bounces off varying surfaces in contrasting ways. Another musical motif that is reminiscent of reflective light is created by three low bouncing notes, which can be heard at the very beginning of the piece. The flowing line begins with notes that are close together. Then, the listener will hear the line expand and the notes become farther apart. An emphasis is placed on the lower notes of the expanded figure. The bouncing of the notes is similar to how lines spring throughout the painting.
Distinguishable diagonal lines characterize the painting. The direction of the light source creates a diagonal line from the top right-hand corner to the top of the waterfall. Then, the motion of the water in the waterfall creates a diagonal to the bottom right-hand corner. The compound movement of the light and the water draws the eye to the center of the painting. The complex use of the lines is similar to when both hands play the smooth and flowing motif towards the middle of the piece. Although both hands are playing the motif, the hands are moving in opposite directions. The right hand has the figure moving downward and the left hand has the figure moving upward. The differing movements cause the hands to move together towards the center of the piano. Correspondingly, the diagonals created by the light and the waterfall create movement that directs the viewer to the center of the painting.
Waterfall, Greenwich blurs the edges of objects. In the upper right-hand corner, the object that the yellow brush strokes represent cannot be clearly identified. Perhaps, these strokes represent the light of the sun, which intermingles with the shrubbery and trees. The blue of the water has facets of pink and yellow that merge with the murky green and yellow at the bottom of the waterfall. Twachtman’s blurred images are similar to the effect of Debussy’s harmonies. The listener can hear the music constantly moving, but it appears to be without clear tonal direction. The flowing line is heard continuously throughout the piece without a resolution. This makes the music feel inconclusive. This sensation is also reflected in the painting in that the viewer is not able to see where the water is going. Viewers are only able to see the scene that is right in front of them. Impressionistic painters were concerned with painting a moment. Although this artist created a static scene, it is a scene with movement and action.
The brushwork and texture have an impact on the perception of the painting. The oil paint allows the colors to blend together easily and create soft contoured lines. The strokes vary in direction, size, and depth. As previously discussed, two diagonals can be seen. The diagonal from the top right-hand corner features straight medium-length brush strokes. The strokes become sparser as they reach closer to the water, and the waterfall is characterized by a different brush stroke. Notice the curvature of the brush stroke as the water is falling over the big boulder. The stroke curves over each crevice of the rock until it reaches the impact with the still water at the bottom of the falls. The texture of the impact is very rough; bumps and unevenness in stroke are clearly visible on the canvas. Debussy also seems to capture this type of roughness. In the middle of the piece, a motif pops out of nowhere in the left hand, just like the texture in the painting that results when the moving water hits the still water. The motive is the loudest dynamic heard so far and it is unexpected amidst the flowing motive in the right hand. The impact of the water and the abrupt forte motive both indicate force and action.
The strokes in the pool of water in the bottom right-hand corner are the shortest brush strokes. They are small and calculated. Although they meticulously blend together, each stroke is distinctive, in some ways resembling a staccato note in music. Through close observation, the viewer is able to see the intermingling colors in this body of water and appreciate the ways in which the colors and short brush strokes contribute to the beautiful reflective qualities in the painting.
The brush strokes in the pool are similar to the passage in the music where the hands stop the flowing motive and the detached notes. This section demonstrates a variety of sonorous colors. Until this point, no chords have been played together. The addition of a chordal texture for the first time in the piece is similar to the mixture of colors and strokes in the pool at the bottom of the waterfall. Here the many colors used throughout the painting harmonize and swirl together.
Waterfall, Greenwich by John Henry Twachtman and “Mouvement” from Images by Claude Debussy have inherent connections. The painting and music are both from the impressionist era. Impressionism in music and the visual arts share a number of ideas, including similar use of movement, colors, and texture. Besides the general characteristics of impressionism, connections between these particular two works include light, space, composition, and line. In the pursuit of creating new experiences in the arts, it is interesting how combining two art forms can enhance one’s perception of each work.