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A musical perspective on Impressionism

Charles Conder
England 1868–1909, lived in Australia 1884–90, Europe 1890–1905

As we celebrate the opening of Australian Impressionists in France, Phoebe Briggs, Head of Music at Victorian Opera, provides a new perspective on Impressionism.

When thinking of the Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Pulitzer Prize winning musical Sunday in the Park with George, it’s hard not to think in terms of impressionism – which may seem odd as the music was written in 1984, a century after the Impressionist era! (1875 – 1925) However, as the musical is inspired by the famous painting A Sunday on La Grande Jatte by preeminent French impressionist Georges Seurat, it’s appropriate that there are strong links between the content of the score and libretto and the Impressionist style of painting, in particular pointillism.

Impressionism as a movement in art has been described in various ways but they all seem to come back to the idea of a focus on colour and light. What we see at the beginning of Sunday in the Park with George is a blank white canvas onto which the characters are gradually introduced. Sondheim in fact “frames” his work with this image as the musical finishes in the same way, with the audience left with “White. A blank page or canvas. His favourite. So many possibilities.”

Sondheim uses “colours” or leitmotifs in his music to introduce each character. A perfect example of this is in the musical accompaniment – as well as the vocal line for George – at the first point we see him painting in his studio. The song itself is called “Color and Light”. It features a staccato quaver figure (a repeated rhythmic pattern of fast notes) which starts on the piano then is added to strings, woodwind and finally in George’s vocal line itself (“Red red red red red red orange….”). There is one syllable or word per note, giving the impression of George’s rapid brushstrokes and “dotty” pointillist style of painting. It’s worth noting at this point that Seurat’s technique of painting was in fact small brush strokes rather than dots.

The musical explores the imagined stories of the characters depicted in Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, including the woman with the parasol in the foreground of the painting, who is cast as George’s mistress and long suffering muse; Dot. The choice of name would seem to be an obvious reference to pointillism and a convenient link to the style of painting; however Sondheim has said it was merely a coincidence, and that Dot was a popular name in Paris at the time of the painting!

The theme of light is also constant in both halves of the musical as the artist’s descendant, a modern day George, introduces his laser light sculpture extravaganza “Chromolume” to a gallery audience in Act 2, accompanied by brilliant layers of rapid and random notation from the orchestra.

In researching for this musical, I found a lovely article written by Michael Starobin, the orchestrator of Sunday in the Park with George. He discusses that there was a theory that the use of 11 musicians for the production’s orchestra reflected the 11 colours Seurat uses in his painting. Starobin, however, clarified that this is a coincidence and merely what the Broadway show budget and pit size would allow!

Phoebe Briggs is the Head of Music at Victorian Opera, and is also the Conductor for the Victorian Opera season of Sunday in the Park with George.

Victorian Opera’s Sunday in the Park with George is running at the Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne from 20-27 July. Details at

Join us for Floor Talk Series: Reflections on Monet. The first talk on Wed 3 July looks at art and music during the Impressionist period.