Impressionist music

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Impressionist music
Stylistic origins Reaction to 19th century Romanticism
Cultural origins Late 19th century in Paris, France
Typical instruments woodwind, strings, harp, piano, small chamber
Mainstream popularity ca. 1890 to 1940

The impressionist movement in music was a movement in Europen classical music. It was mostly in France. It began in the late 19th century and ended in the middle of the 20th century. There were two very famous composers of this movement, Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. Debussy actually did not like the term 'Impressionist' in his works.[1] English impressionist musicians include Cyril Scott (1879–1970) and John Ireland (1879–1962). Other well-known composers labeled impressionist include Paul Dukas, Gabriel Fauré, Manuel de Falla, Isaac Albéniz, Giacomo Puccini, Leoš Janáček, Alexander Scriabin and Kurt Atterberg

The first pieces of impressionist music were probably composed by Franz Liszt, the first such piece for orchestra is probably Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, composed by Claude Debussy, between 1892 and 1894.

The impressionism of Debussy is achieved through a number of means the overall aim of which were to weaken the teleological (Purpose driven) harmonic structure of classical (functional) western harmony. In functional harmony a path is set that leads inexorably to a final cadence at which the tonic is clearly affirmed, dissonance whether through the use of suspensions or 7th chords etc is correctly prepared and then resolved creating a flow of tension and release. By contrast, many of Debussy's dissonances simply flow onto another dissonance in chains of seventh chords etc. Another way that Debussy holds tonality in suspense is through the use of the pentatonic and whole-tone scales in both melody and harmony. The story of modernist music has been a response to the extreme chromaticism of radical romantic composers such as Wagner and Liszt. The ones who felt compelled to complete the task took music to the chromatic extreme of atonality, others found ways to continue to write music using recognisable harmonic sequences and tonal (therefore recallable) melody by emancipating the dissonance and freeing it from it's functional straightjacket. Debussy played a massive part in developing the vocabulary for this kind of composition. All non-atonal composers of the modernist era owe a debt to Debussy, including Stravinsky, Bartok, Messiaen and possibly even Steve Reich.

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  1. In a letter Debussy wrote to Durand in March 1908, Debussy also talked about the label "Impressionist" which was used to classify his music: „J’essaie de faire ‚autre chose‘ – en quelque sorte, des ‚realites‘ - ce que les imbéciles appelement ‚impressionisme‘, terme aussi mal employé que possible, surtout par le critiques d’art qui n’hésitent pas à en affubler Turner, le plus beau créateur de mystére qui soit en art“; citation from Oswald d' Estrade-Guerra: Debussy – l’homme, son oeuvre, son milieu, H. Lemoine, 1962, pp. 144