Art Nouveau Music

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.

Hmmmm…Debussy? La Mer might work.

Eric Satie (1866-1925).

Spare, mysterious tunes for the piano.

Playful yet elegant.

Rosicrucian Symbolist mysteries.

Towards the cusp of Surrealism…

I love the answers. :slight_smile:

I don’t love thread zombie jokes, so please stow it, jokers.

On the other hand, Art Deco music is jazzy and driving. Rhapsody in Blue, It Don’t Mean A Thing, I Got Rhythm…

The period you’re referring to is the “Belle Epoch,” roughly from the 1870s to World War I. “Art Nouveau” is a strictly French term, with analogous movements in other countries, such as the “Secession Movement” in Austria and the “Gilded Age” in the U.S. So Art Nouveau, strictly speaking, has no direct counterpart in music. But the broader area of the Belle Epoch was indeed a cohesive musical period.

This period was the acme of the Romantic period of classical music. However, the music that your pianist would be playing would be classified as “Salon Music.” It’s mostly short virtuoso pieces, very melodic, with high emotional content.

Think: Short pieces by Chopin, Gottschalk, Liszt, Massenet, Satie and Rachmaninoff, in addition to Operetta composers like Johann Strauss, Jr., Lehar and Kalman . . . and even some ragtime. Though some of these composers pre-dated the period, their music fit the Belle Epoch genre perfectly, so was often performed by the salon musicians.

British ravesters Echo and the Bunnymen and jazz trumpet bandleader Maynard Furguson each released albums featuring Art Nouveau-style artwork. (And in the same year – 1990! Must be a fin-de-siècle thang.)

Great answer. When I first contemplated this all those years ago, the piece I couldn’t help thinking of was Scott Joplin’s luxuriant, chromatic Gladiolus Rag (1907). Gladiolus was one of his many reimaginings of the musical structure of his biggest hit, Maple Leaf Rag, this time garbed in flowing Art Nouveau sensuality. Fig Leaf Rag (1908) also exemplifies those qualities, minus the Maple Leaf substrate. Joplin titled his compositions with primarily botanical themes, which certainly fits right in with Art Nouveau aesthetics.

But I feel the most Art Nouveau thing I ever heard was Heliotrope Bouquet (1907). The first half was by Scott’s Creole friend Louis Chauvin, a true poète maudit, who died soon after Scott visited him and transcribed the two lovely strains that are all that’s left of Chauvin’s genius. Scott composed the other two strains to complement them in loveliness and as a farewell to a friend.

Unlike panache45, I wouldn’t consider “Chopin, Gottschalk, Liszt”, great as they are, for your Belle Époque playlist. To me, they are firmly 19th-Century Romanticism. Massenet might work however. Rachmaninov would fit with the first three except that he was born 50 years later.

Debussy and Satie are spot-on. I’d add other French composers from that period like Florent Schmitt. Try his Crépuscules for piano : lush harmonies, florid melodies and right in the time-frame. Or some early Ravel, like Miroirs.

Even if it premiered at the very end of that period, whenever I hear Ravel’s “Bolero” I imagine Egyptian-style obelisks and a danseuse on stage.

Edward McDowell, “To a Wild Rose”:
Definitely captures the vegetative-growth aspect of Art Nouveau design, and the timing is right.

(Johanna, you’ll be interested to know that McDowell was Edward Sapir’s piano teacher. I wonder if McDowell was one of those that believed music in a certain key induced a certain mind-set in the listener, planting an idea in Ed’s head…)

Bookmarking this.

Much interest.