Under the Moon: Composing for Daubigny and Impressionism

Michael Begg is an experimental musician and sound artist. His new work, A Moon That Lights Itself, was commissioned by the National Galleries of Scotland and was performed within the Inspiring Impressionism exhibition on 16 September 2016. Here, Michael summarises how the life and times of Charles François Daubigny inspired the evolution of his work.

Before embarking on A Moon That Lights Itself, the artist Charles François Daubigny was a mystery to me. Now, despite having spent considerable time researching him to inform a musical composition, much of the mystery remains intact.

There appears to have been little drama to add spice to what seems, on the surface, a successful and happy life. Certainly there was none of the troublingly unbalanced excesses famously displayed by his young acolyte Vincent van Gogh. By all accounts Daubigny was a stable man: incredibly gifted and successful at navigating his way through the ever-changing art world of nineteenth-century France.

It seems to me that the most unfortunate aspect to Daubigny’s life is that his legacy has been historically undermined by his emerging between two movements. His voice arose in the fading light of Romanticism, just loud enough to inform, guide and support the rise of the younger generation of Impressionists.

I suspect this may be one reason why I sense a deep melancholy in his painting. I am often touched by the implacable emotional depth in his landscapes, particularly those executed in his later years.

Charles Francois Daubigny, Landscape by Moonlight, c.1875
Museum de Fundatie, Zwolle and Heino / Wijhe

From his tiny floating studio on the Oise he seemed increasingly drawn to twilight and nocturnal scenes, completing no fewer than 25 during the 1870s, the last decade of his life. It was here that I placed my pin on a blank score-sheet and began to construct my palette of sounds for A Moon That Lights Itself.

During the 1870s, whilst Daubigny was painting his nocturnal scenes, the musical form of the Nocturne was changing, from a piece to be performed in the evening, to one that evoked the evening, that explicitly concerned itself with the unique emotional states and responses triggered by moonlight.

I pictured Daubigny in his later years, adrift on a small boat, working through the night to capture the moon. And this picture emerged accompanied by a series of musical sounds – legato cello, sounds of water and glass, animal and bird sounds, the slow rhythms of tides drawn by the moon…

Charles Francois Daubigny, Moonlight, c. 1875
The Mesdag Collection, The Hague

My compositional approach, the way these sounds combined, was inspired by Daubigny’s own late painting style – his increasingly impressionistic application of broad strokes and smears of raw colour thatching, and his hasty articulation of mood and place.

Whilst Daubigny, himself an enthusiastic adopter of new technologies, innovations and processes, was afloat on the river, engaged in his painterly dialogue with the moon, his countryman Edouard-Lean Scott de Martinville conceived and produced his ‘phonautograph’. This device, appearing years before Edision’s phonograph, enabled sound to be captured for the first time. Unlike Edison, however, de Martinville neglected (or saw no need) to provide the means through which to playback the recording. Rather, a visual representation was captured on a lamp black cylinder.

Phonautograph

It wasn’t until 2008, when researchers at Berkeley University took some ‘squiggles on paper’ and used digital technology to recover the original audio. The recording, the first ever made, was of a human voice singing Au Clair De La Lune.

A Moon That Lights Itself is my own ‘pochade’ (sketch) for Daubigny, for the moon, and for an extraordinary time in the development of European culture, when our sense of capturing the world around us and within us took extraordinarily bold, though markedly sensitive, steps forward.

Inspiring Impressionism: Daubigny | Monet | Van Gogh was shown at the Scottish National Gallery from June 25th to the 2nd October 2016. A Moon That Lights Itself was performed within the exhibition on 16 September 2016.

By Michael Begg, experimental musician and sound artist , 7 September 2016