As a musical movement, Impressionism arose in France at the end of the 19th century, though composers of many other nationalities embraced it.
The music was meant to evoke moods and emotions and convey sensory information through music. Rather than tell a story, the Impressionists wanted to create, well, an impression.
In this post, we’re going to talk about 13 of the greatest and most famous Impressionist composers, some of whom are still living and writing today. Let’s get started.
1. Claude Debussy
Born in 1862, Claude Debussy became a giant of Impressionist music despite not actually liking the term. His work is often called dreamlike, and “Claire de Lune,” a piano piece that is perhaps his most famous work, lives up to that description.
His unconventional harmonies, on display in works like “Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune,” helped pave the way for the jazz harmonies that would arise in the following century.
Debussy’s music represented a marked departure from the Romantic music of his day and exerted influence on many composers who came after him.
2. Maurice Ravel
Though Maurice Ravel was a brilliant pianist, the French composer is best known for his orchestral works, which relied on intricate harmonies and his highly inventive use of rhythm.
His status as an Impressionist composer could begin and end with “Boléro,” even if he never wrote anything else. The piece, which steadily builds—almost unbearable slowly—to a stunning climax, has been part of pop culture since its 1928 premiere.
The piece has also led researchers to believe Ravel suffered primary progressive aphasia, a neurodegenerative condition that, before robbing its victims of language, instigates synesthesia and a penchant for repetitive patterns. Ravel died in 1937.
3. John Ireland
British composer John Ireland brought lush harmonies and rich textures to the Impressionist movement at the turn of the 20th century. He taught piano at London’s Royal College of Music, where one of his many notable students was Benjamin Britten.
Ireland’s music was associated with both the Romantic and Impressionist movements, and many of his compositions had roots in and drew inspiration from nature and the English countryside.
He composed literature for the organ (“Elegy”) and the piano in addition to chamber music, orchestral works, and even scores for the nascent film industry.
4. Yann Tiersen
Calling Yann Tiersen an Impressionist composer may be a bit misleading, as it could lull one into thinking he was living and writing at the beginning of the 20th century. However, he wasn’t born until 1970.
Still, while he uses elements of classical, rock, and folk music, the atmospheric nature of much of his work leads many people to categorize him as an Impressionist.
Tiersen is perhaps best known for his film compositions, most notably what he wrote for 2001’s Amélie. He has released several albums of his non-film compositions and has written music for the theatre.
5. Isaac Albéniz
Spanish composer Isaac Albéniz wrote mainly for the piano, which is unsurprising considering his many concert tours as a pianist in Europe and the Americas.
Before his death in 1909, Albéniz became a major force in Spanish classical music, and drawing on Spanish folk music, he wrote Iberia, a collection of piano pieces that are the sort that when you hear them, there is no mistaking the country from where they came.
Albéniz also wrote orchestral music fueled by his Spanish roots and interest in the music of the country.
6. Mary Howe
Born in Virginia in 1882, Mary Howe began her musical studies as a young girl. She is recognized as one of the first American women to enjoy a successful career as a composer, which had largely been the purview of white men for centuries.
Before teaching at Julliard, Howe studied composition with Nadia Boulanger in Paris and wrote for orchestras and chamber ensembles. She also wrote several choral works.
For the many songs Howe wrote, she collaborated with celebrated poets of her day, including Langston Hughes and Edna St. Vincent Millay, though her work didn’t require words. “Stars” evokes the vastness of space with only instruments.
As an Impressionist composer, she imbued her music with expressive and emotional qualities, as well as their technical and musical complexity.
7. Lili Boulanger
Sister of Nadia, Lili Boulanger, won the 1913 Prix de Rome award for music composition at the ripe old age of 20. In addition to her sister, the vaunted music teacher, two of Boulanger’s grandparents were accomplished and recognized musicians.
Lili studied under her sister and with fellow French composer Gabriel Fauré. She wrote song cycles and orchestral works and was gaining renown at the time of her untimely death at the age of 24.
The music she left behind earns kudos for its emotional intensity. Even though that’s often a hallmark of Romantic music, she was on her way to becoming a pillar of Impressionism.
8. Joanna Newsom
As an actor, Joanna Newsom has appeared in film and on television, and she’s married to comedian Andy Samberg. As a musician, she’s a singer, songwriter, and harpist.
Though her music may fit into the indie-pop category (she even received a Grammy nomination), her Impressionist leanings are apparent in much of her music, laden as it is with experimental arrangements, orchestral instrumentation, and often, her harp.
The harp part of Newsom’s “Sawdust and Diamonds” could have been written by any Impressionist composer at the turn of the 20th century.
9. Paul Dukas
Born in 1865 in France, Paul Dukas studied music and eventually taught composition at the Conservatoire de Paris, where he later taught composition. He was also respected as a music critic.
This last job may have played a part in his notorious perfectionism, which restricted his outpost, and he sometimes took years to complete a single work. But one of them, inspired by a poem by Goethe, was “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” which featured largely in the Disney film Fantasia.
He also wrote a ballet and worked on several operas, though he only completed Ariane et Barbe-Bleue. He died in 1935.
10. Maurice Emmanuel
Musicology occupied much of Maurice Emmanuel’s life, as he intensely studied Greek and French music. He was a noted teacher and Impressionist composer, and much of his output was governed by his interest in folk music.
Emmanuel wrote for orchestras, chamber ensembles, vocalists, and solo instruments. He studied under César Franck in Paris and eventually taught at Paris’ Schola Cantorum.
While his music is not widely performed today, Emmanuel’s folk music leanings inspired many composers even after his death in 1938.
11. Toru Takemitsu
In the 1950s, Toru Takemitsu used bits and pieces of Impressionist ideas in his largely atonal music. By the 1970s, though, he was more fully embracing the melodic lyricism of the musical style.
He combined Japanese and Western musical traditions in interesting ways and was interested in manipulating the timbre of individual instruments. These experiments led him to musique concrète, a technique that took recordings of sounds and manipulated them for use in music.
While musique concrète is credited to French musicians like Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry, Takemitsu developed his idea at around the same time— much the same way that calculus was invented by two different men in different countries at the same time.
Takemitsu also employed many traditional instruments in his music, as with the percussion he used in “From Me Flows What You Call Time.” He worked with Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa and choreographer Martha Graham.
12. Charles Tomlinson Griffes
Though he didn’t live to see the age of 40, Charles Tomlinson Griffes had an outsized effect on American music. Born in New York in 1884, Griffes studied music in college and went on to combine elements of Middle Eastern music with the sounds of Western culture.
His use of impressionistic techniques put him squarely in the camp even if he hadn’t been interested in experimentation, and the sound combinations he employed gave his music an exotic feel missing from the output of many composers at the time.
His work laid the groundwork for the emergence of modernist and avant-garde music in the United States.
13. Germaine Tailleferre
In the 1920s, Germaine Tailleferre was the only woman in a group of French composers known as Les Six. Two of the men were Darius Milhaud and Francis Poulenc, both vaunted composers of their day. Tailleferre more than held her own among the group.
She wrote music with clarity, simplicity, and elegance and wrote for many musical media, including film. Like her fellow impressionist composers, Tailleferre was interested in experimenting and blending old and new musical ideas in her work. Her first piano concerto was immediately hailed as a masterpiece.
Tailleferre taught music for most of her adult life and was also a respected conductor. While she doesn’t have the same name recognition as Bach and Beethoven, her work continues to be performed and recorded today.
Summing Up Our List Of Famous Impressionist Composers
Some Impressionist music can be hauntingly beautiful, and some of it can be a little weird, given many composers’ leanings toward experimentation.
But the movement and many of its composers exerted great influence over the sounds and harmonies of Western culture, giving rise to jazz harmonies, electronic music, and much of today’s so-called classical music compositions.
The composers we’ve listed here are but a few. Who have we left off? Let us know, and we’ll add them in!