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Background Information


Impressionism is considered more of a movement than an era; a breakaway from tradition and a defiance of previously accepted societal standards, as they pertain to music.  However, Romantic ideas still prevailed through the Impressionistic era. The impressionist movement in music was a movement in European classical music that was loosely set between the late nineteenth centuryup and the middle of the twentieth century. Reacting to the mostly Germanic dynamism and heroism of Romantic music, Impressionism dimmed the dynamics, creating quiet music, which was sensuous and elusive.  This music was "more about 'smelling the roses' along the way than striving to arrive at an important conclusion" (word document). Debussy was one of the most inspirational Impressionistic composers and greatly influenced composers such as Ravel and Delius.


Impressionism was the first movement that developed new trends significantly contrary to Romanticism.  The characteristices of Impressionist music lean towards Modern characteristics, but Impressionism still maintains its own flair. Debussy began the movement in France in reaction to the dramatic and dynamic emotionalism of romantic music, especially that of Wagner. The basic classification of Impressionistic music is that Impressionistic music is vague in form, delicate in nature, and has a mysterious atmosphere to it. The important innovations to note concern melody, harmony, rhythm, orchestration, texture and dynamics.


  • Melody- Long-lined, sometimes short-breathed, often aimless
  • Harmony- Used more for the color of an individual chord than for its effect on the direction of the music. Harmonic ideas forbidden in earlier times were avidly used by Impressionists for their sensuous color
  • Rhythm- The rhythmic element often takes a back seat in Impressionism to harmony, texture and orchestration
  • Texture- Sometimes crystal-clear, sometimes hazy and clouded
  • Orchestration- The large orchestra was used not for power and volume but for its diverse palette of colors and range of instrumentation and sounds
  • Dynamics- The dynamics were mostly quiet, so mezzo piano and softer was the range of dynamic contrast


Important Aspects (According to Norton)


  • The term "impressionism" derives from a painting by Claude Monet.
  • The painting style was centered in Paris, with works by Pissaro, Manet, Degas, and Renoir.
  • Characteristics of the style include:

            -juxtaposition of pure colors.

            -studies in light and use of luminous sheen.

  • Symbolism was a parallel movement in French literature.
  • Symbolist writers include Verlaine and Mallarmé. .
  • Their style used indirect language, free verse, and loose suggestions.
  • Impressionism in music is characterized by

            -parallel chord movement and some stacked (ninth) chords.

            -non-Western influences, including new scales (whole tone, pentatonic).

            -interest in instrumental color.

            -floating rhythms and meters.

  • Debussy was the most important Impressionist composer.
  • He was attracted to non-Western scales and sounds.
  • He wrote programmatic music and used short lyric forms.
  • He is known for his symphonic tone poems, piano music, vocal music.
  • Debussy and others were influenced by new world musics heard at the 1889 Paris World Exhibition.




Impressionism influenced the music of Manuel de Falla (Spanish), Frederick Delius (English), Isaac Albéniz (Spanish), Erik Satie (French), Camille Saint-Saëns (French), and Ottorino Respighi (Italian), as well as jazz musicians such as Bill Evans. "Musical impressionism arose as a means to move away from the traditional major-minor system: it looked back to medieval music in its use of parallel chord movements, and it adopted new scales (whole-tone, pentatonic) that composers heard in non-European music. It also featured new chords built in thirds to include the dissonant interval of a ninth. Instruments were used for color much like an artist applied different hues to a painting, and the music moved in a gentle, floating rhythm." (3)


The musical genre known as exotica is highly reminiscent of impressionism.



Claude Debussy




Claude Debussy was a famous French composer that lived from 1862 until 1918. He is most know for his composing. He developed a style of music that broke strikingly strong away from the tonality of Classical music. He was born in 1862, at St Gemain en Laye. His family was not wealthy by any stretch of the imagination, however his godparents were able to pay for his entrance into the Paris Conservatory when he was 10 years old. The style that he learned here, mainly being archaic and mechanical, would find it's way into his works in the future, slowly but surely however, it would be fleshed down and weeded out. Debussy won the Priz de Rome for his Cantata L'Enfant prodigue. He credits Wagner's opera Tristan and Isolde for getting him through his homesickness of Paris, while he was studying in Rome. He is often said to have criticized this opera as well, but he was only upset with the actual plot of the opera, and not the musical soundscape, which fascinated him. Debussy was astounded when he witnessed the Javanese gamelan at the Paris World Exposition of 1889. This orchestra featured bells, xylophones, and gongs. He described it as being a "counterpoint by comparison with which that of Palestrina is child's play.". This orchestra is credited by many as the main inspiration for Debussy when he was perfecting the impressionist sound. He perfected it so that the perfect, prototype impressionist sound was an atmosphere of melodic and harmonic shapes in which dissonant tones were placed so as to reduce their impact to a minimum and to heighten the overtone value of the piece. Some of Debussy's early works that have achieved considerable notoriety are Ariettes oubliees(1888), Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune(1892), and the string quartet(1893). These works display Debussy's struggle to develop this prototype impressionistic sound, all the while fighting to keep some of the tradition that he learned during his earlier days of schooling.


Debussy developed a style in which atmosphere and mood take the place of strong emotion or of the story in program music. He used new chord combinations, whole-tone chords, chromaticism, and exotic rhythms and scales. In place of the usual harmonic progression, he developed a style in which chords are valued for their individual sonorities rather than for their relations to one another, and dissonances are unprepared and unresolved. Although conceived in reaction to romanticism, musical impressionism seems today the culmination of romanticism. Debussy's music has been described as hypnotic and kaleidoscopic, evoking exotic and narcotic experience through its often oriental-sounding chords and arabesques. But the revelations of the visual arts were crucial to his conceptions. For one of his covers, he used the Hokusai woodcut of The Wave, which had an early influence on Manet and Monet.


An early orchestral composition by Claude Debussy, a symphonic suite called Le Printemps ( Springtime) of 1887 was dismissed by his professors as 'vague Impressionism, one of the most dangerous enemies of works of art'. His effects were based on rich, sensuous harmonics and instrumental timbre rather than specific melody, and on fleeting, continuously changing and cyclical fragments rather than clearly structured, separable units. The first piece that really showcases Debussy's fully developed music is the Nocturnes for orchestra (1893-1899). He also completed one opera, Pelleas et Melisande (1894-1902), which was based on a play by Maurice Maeterlinck. After this work was published, the musical scene of Paris split into two sections, one supporting this revolutionary new way of composing, and one adamantly opposing it. Some of his most moving and evolutionary works were written after he left his first wife and began living with his future wife, Emma Bardac. These works include: La Mer (1905), Iberia (1908), Images (1905), and Children's Cerner Suite (1908). The works primarily following these were a lot less appealing to the average listener, however they were much more complex and had far deeper structure to them then had ever been seen before. Debussy's last and most sophisticated orchestral score was Jeux (1913), a ballet. However, the beauty of this ballet was partly ruined by Stravinsky's brass entrance onto the Paris music scene. Stravinsky's entrance sort of marked the changing of the guard in the Paris music scene, and Debussy quietly shrank into nonexistence. He died in from cancer, in Paris, on March 25, 1918.



Maurice Ravel




Joseph Maurice Ravel was a famous French impressionistic composer and concert pianist. One of his most famous works is Boléro, and his estate currently earns more royalties per year than any other French musician. Ravel was born in the Basque region of France. He studied at the conservatory for fourteen years. In Paris he joined a young group of artists known for their tendency to party with reckless abandon. Often it is said he is influenced by other impressionistic greats like Debussy, however Ravel himself felt that he was more influenced by classical composers like Mozart. Ravel traveled the world touring and was influenced by many forms of cultural music. Ravel drove a truck in WWI, though he wanted to be a pilot. He died in 1937 and is buried North-West of Paris.


Ravel always considered himself a classicist. He used traditional methods to express new and innovative harmonies. In many of his pieces the transitions betwenn sections hid the beginning of the next motif. THough Ravel's music had a tonal center it was still innovative. Like his contemporaries many of his melodies were modal, he often used modes with major or minor bents such as the mixolydian and the aeolian respectivley. Ravel's pieces are often marked by unresolved appoggiaturas, and their vast complexity. Ravel's style was particulerly influenced by diffirent dance styles, most predominantly, the minuet. Ravel revisited and revised his works painstakingly and was reffered to as the "Swiss Watchmaker" due to the meticulousness and complexity of his work. Strangley enough for all the complexity of his work, Ravel composed all of his pieces on an upright piano, never having owned a grand piano in his home.


Some Notable Compositions (Ravel)

  • Miroirs (1905)
  • Rapsodie espagnole "Spanish Rhapsody" (1907)
  • Daphnis et Chloé "Daphne and Chloé" (1909–1912)
  • Boléro (1928)






Paul Dukas was a French composer.  He was good friends with Claude Debussy, whom he met at Conservatoire de Paris. Dukas destroyed many of his own compositions, due to his displeasure with them. He was a huge perfectionist and was never satisfied with his work, a trait that led him to constantly second-guess himself. This trait also led to extremely complex and highly demanding works, ones that took him years to complete to his satisfaction. One of these pieces is his highly demanding ''Sonata'' . He also completed two very complex works for the piano. His work is reminiscent of both Beethoven and Franck. However, he is more widely known for being an astounding composition teacher, and as well as an author, "Dukas wrote extensively for several of the French music journals of his day and was a professor at the Conservatoire and elsewhere from 1910 until his death" (International Dictionary of Opera). 


The most famous work by Dukas is L’Apprenti Sorcier, written in 1897 and based on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s poem, Der Zauberlehrling.  This is the best-known work that Dukas ever wrote  because it was used in Walt Disney’s Fantasia.  This piece tells a story about a sorcerer's apprentice who uses magic and ends up getting into trouble.  The irony in the fame of this work is that this piece is  atypical of Dukas’ customary manner of composing.  As was stated above, Dukas spent an extremely long time perfecting every single piece that he wrote.  He did not have the luxury of time as he wrote The Sorceror’s Apprentice; Dukas had a strict deadline to meet.  Because of this, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is an uncharacteristically spontaneous composition. 


"Dukas possessed a wonderful grasp of orchestral color (his palette being more blended in the Straussian sense than soloistic as with Debussy) and an infallible sense of musical structure. It is very likely that Dukas was most energized and inspired by writing music for the theater. His first practical stage experience was in 1895 when he and his friend Saint-Saëns edited and brought to performance Frédégonde, an unfinished opera by their recently deceased mutual teacher Guiraud. Dukas entertained two operatic projects of his own between 1892 and 1899 only to grow dissatisfied and leave them in fragments"(International Dictionary of Opera).






The Polish composer Karol Szymanowski was born in the Ukraine, which was formerly a part of Poland, yet he studied in Warsaw and was greatly influenced by Chopin, Wagner, Strauss, Brahms and Reger. During the war, he remained on his family's estate in Ukraine and read many political books to heighten his understanding of the world through the eyes of a politician. This understanding can be seen in much of his music after the Great War. "His cultural knowledge is reflected in his music and in particular in his settings of literary texts of one kind or another" (5). Often times, he combines Polish cultural findings in his music with his own personal understand of Arabic and Persian culture.






Source Number Source Name URL
1 The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. 2001-05. http://www.bartleby.com/65/im/impress-mus.html
2 Legacies of Impressionism http://library.thinkquest.org/C0111578/legs.html
3 Discovering Debussy and Impressionism http://www2.wwnorton.com/college/music/enj9/lessons/Part_8/lesson60.htm
4 "Paul Dukas." International Dictionary of Opera. 2 vols. St. James Press, 1993. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale. 2007. http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC
5 http://www.naxos.com/composerinfo/1018.htm





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