From 1890 to 1910… Art Nouveau revolutionized the way people looked at the objects that made their world. Its sinuous, slinky, undulating, vegetal, exotic lines sensualized the world of design. “Art Nouveau was a movement, not a style.” (Alastair Duncan, Art Nouveau, Thames and Hudson, 1994, p. 7) In the 1890s reaction to stuffy Victorianism opened “the door to the concepts of modern interior design through which Art Nouveau advanced one of its own causes, that of neat and coherent settings for the home.” (Alastair Duncan, p. 8.)
So as musical trends have often been compared to contemporaneous art trends (Baroque, Rococo, Classical, Romantic, Impressionist, Expressionist, Modernist, etc.), let us think of examples of music that reflected the Art Nouveau aesthetic. As if you were scoring a soundtrack for a documentary, say, on Art Nouveau. Please step for a moment into the space of imagination into which I invite you…
The year is circa 1908. In the front parlor, dappled afternoon sunlight filters in through stained-glass window designs and a profusion of big ferns that are placed all around the room. On wicker chairs sit elegant Edwardian ladies in lacy gowns, long gloves with mother-of-pearl buttons, and floppy wide-brimmed hats trimmed with ostrich feathers, sipping tea. In the darkened back room, hunched around a table are several poètes maudits and other bohemians, smoke tendrils from opium pipes curling around their tumblers of absinthe which seem to faintly glow a sickly green in the gloomy haze.
In through the front door walks the Piano Player, his hair neatly parted exactly down the center. He wears a long, exquisitely tailored coat of burgundy velvet and a big floppy bow tie of iridescent blue-green silk. He sits at the piano bench, languorously shoots his lace cuffs from his sleeves, and prepares to begin playing.
Now… what pieces shall he play that will please both the elegant Edwardian ladies sipping tea in the front parlor, and the absinthe-guzzling poètes maudits in the back room? The answer to this question should reveal which music corresponds to the spirit and feel of Art Nouveau.