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 Dom Paul Benoit and Impressionism

Dom Paul Benoit acknowledged the influence of four major composers' works upon his compositional style:  Bach, Vierne, Debussy and Ravel.  While the organ is an expected medium for the styles of  J. S. Bach and Louis Vierne,  the organ is something of an unexpected medium to embrace the styles of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel.  Bach's works may have served as a foundation for Dom Paul's composition studies and Vierne's works as a romantic vantage point from which Benoit became enamored with chromaticism;  however, Dom Paul's work clearly shares with Debussy and Ravel several compositional elements  that are the fabric of impressionism.  Even though elements of Debussy's style and Ravel's style are visible in Dom Paul's work, truth is best served by acknowledging that Debussy composed in the style of Debussy, Ravel in the style of Ravel, and Benoit in the style of Benoit.  This parallel diversity is characteristic among  the impressionist composers.

Romanticism is credited with hitting its zenith in Richard Wagner.  Several composers who followed Wagner's time felt it was time for a respite from the storm and hence their need to flee from the intensity of the emotion expressed in romanticism.  The constraints of romanticism often included:    a.) melody and harmony remaining weightily within the confines of tonality as far as it could be pushed,  and  b.) musical form rigidly adhering to the accepted structures.

Those who rebelled fell into two groups, the expressionists and the impressionists.   Indicative of the expressionists were Alban Berg, Anton von Webern, and "Arnie" Schoenberg - hmmm... a "12-tone" Mass, ...let's not go there for now .  On the other path, the works of Claude Debussy became the cornerstone of the musical impressionism.  A list of others who were evolving at the same time includes Frederick Delieus, Charles Martin Loeffler, Manuel De Falla, Eric Satie, and Maurice Ravel.  The most striking observation one can make collectively about their work is that they all are very different - yet similar in their transition away from romanticism.  Their art interacted to redirect each other - all of their paths crossed in Paris.  They were bent on softening the hold traditional tonality had on music. They were not allergic to parallel movement within the voices of a composition.  They did not hesitate to modify any compositional technique of the romantics to fit their impressionist ends.  They were not married to the structure of traditional forms.  Beauty and naturalness of expression were still a musical priority.  Most important, they tried everything they could find to explore new sound textures - modes, pentatonic scales, the whole tone scale, and so forth.

So where are we?  With the impressionists we find ourselves surrounded by more gentle textures, whose elusive harmonies evoke the ethereal.  Melodies without strong tonal direction, placed against more transparent background textures.  "Modal friendly" as opposed to "only major and minor spoken here".  Meter exercises a far more gentle hold on the flow of the music. Parallelism with chordal harmonies using the 9ths, 11ths, and 13ths.  Maurice Ravel's works can even be accused of falling under the spell of jazz, which is known from his self confessed fascination with the medium.  Ah, ...Paris after the turn of the 20th century!

These impressionistic elements consistently prevade the fabric of Dom Paul's organ compositions, even though his works were composed substantially later than the beginning of the twentieth century.  What is unique to impressionism with Dom Paul's music is that it was written for the organ, not historically the instrument of choice for the typical impressionist, and that it was written to embrace the flow of the liturgy, not historically an impressionistic stage setting. His compositions are chant based, which is home turf for the modes.  His textures ooze with parallelism and suspensions that skillfully utilize 9ths, 11ths, and 13ths.  Dom Paul's music maintains metrical movement, yet is imbued with a mood of timelessness.  His use of sustained notes, or sustained chords, against other moving voices, and his use of sequential suspensions, vaguely remind one of the texture of Debussy's sustained pedal effects for the piano.

Coda:  Dom Paul Benoit's music for organ  mystically transports one aloft like gently rising incense, yet always with a faint aroma of the contemporary.  The textures of his grandiose moments skilfully maintain a transparency that avoids any excessive thickness.  His gentlier moments consistently evoke an "other worldly" peace, with almost a healing quality in their warmth - a most appropriate musical texture for our time, ...or any time.


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