Classical Music: Impressionist Period

Impressionism in music was a movement among various composers in Western classical music, mainly during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, whose music focuses on suggestion and atmosphere, "conveying the moods and emotions aroused by the subject rather than a detailed tone-picture". “Impressionism” is a philosophical and aesthetic term borrowed from late 19th century French painting after Monet’s Impression, Sunrise. Musicians were labeled impressionists by analogy to the impressionist painters who use starkly contrasting colors, effect of light on an object blurry foreground and background, flattening perspective to make us focus our attention on the overall impression.

The most prominent in musical impressionism is the use of “color”, or in musical term, timbre, which can be achieved through orchestration, harmonic usage, texture, etc. Other elements of music impressionism involve also new chord combination, ambiguous tonality, extended harmonies, use of modes and exotic scales, parallel motions, and extra-musically, evocative titles such as Reflets dans l'eau ("Reflections on the water", 1905), Brouillards ("Mists", 1913) etc.

Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel are two leading figures in impressionism though Debussy rejected this label (he mentioned in his letter that “imbeciles call ‘impressionism,’ a term employed with the utmost inaccuracy.”). Debussy’s impressionist works typically “evoke a mood, feeling, atmosphere, or scene” by creating musical images through motives, harmony, exotic scales (e.g. whole-tone scale, pentatonic scales), instrumental timbre and other elements, whereas Ravel’s impressionist or symbolist works are essentially represented in a more refined and lucid way. Some impressionist musicians, Debussy and Ravel in particular, are also labeled as symbolist musicians. One trait shared with both aesthetic trends is “a sense of detached observation: rather than expressing deeply felt emotion or telling a story,” as in symbolist poetry, the normal syntax is usually disrupted and individual images that carry the work’s meaning are evoked.

Other composers said to have been influenced by Impressionism include Isaac Albéniz, John Alden Carpenter, Frederick Delius, Paul Dukas, Manuel de Falla, Charles Tomlinson Griffes, and Ottorino Respighi.

Did you find this review helpful?
Parent Categories