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Impressionism In Music Guide: What Is Impressionism In Music?

Photograph of the blog post author, Pete Briley

Pete Briley

14.9.2021

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If you studied art at school, you are probably familiar with the term ‘impressionism in music’ – a 19th Century artistic trend that was mainly focussed in France and popularised by artists such as Claude Monet, Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt. Generally speaking, the technique involved using small, thin brush strokes to show changing depictions (or impressions) of light such as the below Impression, Soleil Levant by Monet. 

impressionism in music

But the Impressionist movement also spread to music and in this article, we’ll look in more detail at what is impressionism in music, what are the characteristics of impressionism in music and impressionism in music examples, and the key pioneer composers of impressionism in music.

What Is Impressionism In Music?

impressionism in music

Impressionism in music does have some ties to the visual art movement – the focus of the genre is the exploration of mood and atmosphere above distinct melody lines.

The purpose of the music is to evoke a feeling or convey a mood and to achieve that the composers often explore alternative chord sequences or scales as well as looking at new ways to generate sound from instruments. 

Historical Background Of Impressionism In Music

impressionism in music

The Impressionist era began in the late 19th Century in France, pioneered by the likes of Maurice Ravel (born in 1875) and Claude Debussy (born in 1862). Musical impressionism trailed slightly behind the visual art initiative – where Monet’s painting above is from 1872, the real start of Impressionism in music came in 1894 when Debussy first performed his piece Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (Prelude to the afternoon of a faun). It’s a relatively short symphonic piece at just under 12 minutes and is essentially a string of motifs and leitmotifs across different instruments – feeling more like a music poem than some of the more structured classical music from earlier in the 19th Century and certainly than the rigid forms associated with pre-19th Century classical stylings and the Baroque period. 

Interestingly, Debussy famously hated the term Impressionism and stated that only “imbeciles” would call his music impressionism and described it as “a term employed with the utmost inaccuracy, especially by art critics who use it as a label to stick on Turner, the finest creator of mystery in the whole of art!”

The Impressionist movement in music continued through the turn of the century and beyond the First World War and into the 1920s, but the impact of composers like Debussy, Ravel, Fanelli, Sibelius, and Scriabin is felt throughout modern classical music to this day. 

What Are The Characteristics Of Impressionism In Music?

PIANO

Impressionism in music is characterized by three main areas:

1. A Less Structured Approach To Music

Where composers prior to the impressionists tended to fit their music into prescribed structures and movements, depending on what kind of piece they were writing, the Impressionists didn’t follow a pre-defined form.

This rejection of traditional structure also extended through to rhythm with more use of free time or changing rhythm and feel throughout a piece.

2. Harmony

The impressionist composers experimented far more with different options for harmony, often utilising chromatic (all 12 notes in an octave), pentatonic and whole-tone scales, or atonality to create different moods or even utilising less-common modal voicings. Whilst the use of some of these melodic devices was not unique (Wagner and Chopin had both used chromatic melody and modal harmony had been used in European folk music for centuries), the way that the Impressionists adopted these techniques in composing melody was a bold step forward.

This exploration into harmony also extended to chord structures – prior to the impressionists whilst the chords used were often more complex than simply the root, 3rd and 5th, the use of 9th, 11th and 13th chords become much more commonplace and had the advantage of muddying the tonal water to better facilitate atonality and thinking of melodic structures outside of the norm.

3. Experimenting With Timbre

Rather than simply utilising instruments and their normal voices, impressionist composers began to experiment with how instruments could create new and different sounds and timbres.

Flutes and Clarinets often played very low in their register to give a darker tone and mutes were used on horns to change their bright sound. Harp, Triangle, and Glockenspiel also found new homes in Impressionist music as they were used to convey shimmering effects, and strings are often played very harshly and then quite softly in the space of a single motif. 

Impressionism In Music Examples

Impressionism in music is best exemplified by the works of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, although Jean Sibelius, Manuel de Falla, and Lili Boulanger as well as a host of other composers also contributed heavily to the genre.

Here are some key pieces to check out:

1. Claude Debussy – ‘Prelude L’apres-midi D’un Faune’

Claude Debussy ‘Prelude l’apres-midi d’un faune’

Arguably the seminal Impressionist piece – Debussy’s initial offering in the impressionist genre starts with solo flute and grows to incorporate Horns, Strings and Harp.

The whole piece has an almost film-music-like quality to it and to my ears it conjures images of harmony with nature and the beauty of the natural world. 

2. Maurice Ravel – ‘Pavane Pour Une Infante Défunte’

Maurice Ravel ‘Pavane Pour une infante défunte’

This solo piano piece is a beautiful and meandering composition. It moves through lots of different moods, growing from calm and quiet and very quickly becoming much louder and more percussive on the keys.

Ravel pays more homage to the structured approach of past composers but is still very much in the more free-flowing vein of other impressionists. His music is characterised by rippling piano runs that give the impression of movement. 

3. Jean Sibelius – ’13 Pieces For Piano, Op.76: 2. Etude’

Jean Sibelius '13 Pieces for Piano, Op.76: 2. Etude'

Like Debussy, Sibelius was very good at giving each instrument a moment to play a melody and then continuing that motif and developing it in another instrument or voice.

This short piece begins on piano but quickly incorporates Spanish Guitar, Pizzicato Cello, and bowed violin. The melody is in constant motion as the different instruments pick up where each has left.

4. Lili Boulanger – ‘Nocturn’

 Lili Boulanger ‘Nocturn’

Flute played very low in its register and piano dance together in this piece by arguably the most eminent female impressionist composer.

‘Nocturn’ is a really good example of how the impressionists played with harmony and at points, this piece feels atonal as the tension builds before landing briefly on what feels like a diatonic home before moving on harmonically. 

5. Manuel de Falla – ‘Sieta Canciones Populares Españolas: No. 5’

Manuel de Falla ‘Sieta Canciones populares Españolas: No. 5’

Manuel de Falla has a slightly different style than some of the other impressionist composers. He is one of Spain’s most influential composers of the early 20th Century and his output can be described as a part impressionist, part neo-classicist – which makes his music really interesting.

He does experiment with melody and harmony and also with rhythm but his music feels somewhat more accessible. This short piece is a wonderful example of how his music conveys a mood in a really short space of time.

6. Claude Debussy – ‘Clair de Lune’

Claude Debussy ‘Clair de Lune’

This is arguably the most famous impressionist composition.

The beautiful, crunchy opening chords of Clair de Lune have been used in a million films and adverts (including Ocean’s 11) to convey a specific kind of hopeful romanticism that holds true as much today as when Debussy first composed it. 

Differences & Similarities Between Impressionism And Expressionism In Music

Impressionism also gave rise to another artistic movement in music – the philosophy of Expressionism. Pioneered by composers such as Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951) and his pupils, Anton Webern (1883–1945) and Alban Berg (1885–1935), Expressionism is similar to Impressionism in the sense that it rejects traditional models and structures of music. Expressionism goes one step further – as Theodore Adorno once said, Expressionism in its purest form aims to “eliminate all of traditional music’s conventional elements, everything formulaically rigid”. 

Where the styles differ is that Expressionism is far more melodically focussed. Impressionism aims to create textures to create atmosphere and mood whilst expressionism focuses on melody-led music that often incorporates dissonance to convey explicit ideas – making it less ethereal in its execution.  Expressionism is often seen as more psychological and aiming at conveying deeper and darker feelings such as fear and anger whereas Impressionism tends to sound lighter.

Now You Know Everything About Impressionism In Music

Well, perhaps not quite everything! In this article, we’ve just scratched the surface of the interesting and wonderful world of impressionism. Like any genre of music, it is a great idea to take a deep dive into some of the composers we’ve mentioned here and see what grabs you – for us, Sibelius and Debussy form the perfect dreamy, chill soundtrack.

Due to its fluid nature, Impressionism often isn’t the kind of music to get your toes tapping but it is certainly interesting from the angle of conveying emotion and you can see a lot of the techniques and ideas first pioneered by the likes of Debussy, Boulanger, and Ravel echoed in the modern classical works of Ludovico Einaudi, Nils Frahm and Simeon Walker, as well as in pretty much every film and TV score.

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