What is Impressionism in Music: An Overview

Impressionism in music appeared in Western classical music during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. At the same time, Impressionism was becoming popular in visual arts across Western Europe. Impressionist music focuses more on evoking mood and emotions than detailed progressions and traditional rhythms and progressions like impressionist paintings of the time.

The term “Impressionism” is borrowed from the painting style gaining influence in France during the late 1800s, first used to describe French painter Monet’s work Impression, Sunrise. Like the paintersImpressionist composers used contrasting tones, flowing rhythms, key changes, and instrumental effects to create an overall impression. 

This article will look at what is Impressionism in music and explore the history, hallmarks, and essential works of the Impressionist period. We will examine the theoretical and stylistic developments of the period and some of the Impressionist composers and their works. We hope you will find a new appreciation and understanding of impressionism’s lasting beauty and continuing influence in music.

When was Impressionist Music Popular?

Impressionist music took center stage during the early Modernism period, specifically from 1890 to the 1930s. 

Impressionism ushered in the modernist era in music, which began in 1890 and extended until 1975.

The Modernist period includes the following sub-eras:

Important French composers like Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy pioneered the Impressionist era in late 19th century France.

Impressionism in music became popular around two decades after Impressionist art made its way into mainstream society. 

Where Claude Monet’s works began to gain recognition in 1872, Claude Debussy’s first acclaimed composition, Prélude à l’après-midi dun Faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a faun), was initially performed in 1894. 

Debussy’s symphonic piece clocks in at just under 12 minutes and feels more like a musical poem than the more structured classical forms from earlier periods.

Prélude à l’après-midi dun Faune – Claude Debussy

What is Impressionist Music?

Impressionist music features the use of timbre to create “color” through harmonics, texture, orchestration, tempo, and rhythm.

Impressionist music typically used evocative titles, as in Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau (Reflections on the water, 1905).

One of musical Impressionism’s most prominent features was the use of tensionless harmony.

In tensionless harmony, chordal dissonance is not resolved but is used as timbres to add color and movement to the music. These dissonant chords were often shifted parallel.

The timbre became the stylistic device of impressionism instead of concise themes or other traditional forms. 

New Musical Texture and Harmony

Impressionist music introduced new chord combinations and made use of ambiguous tonality and extended chords and harmonics.

Impressionist composers implemented the Romantic era’s newly minted modalities in fresh, creative ways.

They used exotic scales that included parallel motion and extra-musicality to create mood and convey mental imagery.

Imppresionist Tonality

Impressionism in music introduced a variety of linear and harmonic progressions that essentially weakened the function of traditional tonality.

These progressions may suspend central tonality or create a sense of tonal ambiguity, sometimes to the point that tonality is nonexistent. 

By the mid-20th century, Impressionism had helped to form a new definition of tonality in music.

For composer and music theorist George Perle, tonality was more than “a matter of ‘tone-centeredness,’ whether based on a ‘natural hierarchy of pitches derived from the overtone series or an ‘artificial’ pre compositional ordering of the pitch material; nor is it essentially connected to the kinds of pitch structures one finds in traditional diatonic music.” (Pitt)

Parallel Chords

Parallel chords are comprised of a sequence of chords using intervals that do not change as the chord moves.

For example, a major chord of C, E, and G would parallel a following chord of F, A and C, followed by another parallel chord of G, B, and D.

All chords include a major third between the one and three and a minor third between the third and fifth tones.

This movement is also known as parallel motion.

Harmony in Impressionist Music

Impressionist music makes extensive use of extended harmonies by introducing new tones into traditional three-tone chords.

Extended chords were first introduced during the Baroque period in Galant style.

Extended harmonies gained popularity during the Romantic period but remained rare in music compositions until the Impressionist period.

Extended chords are triadic chords that extend the chord by adding notes beyond the seventh.

The ninth, eleventh, and thirteenth chords are examples of extended chords. 

Extended chords were rare prior to the Romantic movement, and extended harmonies gained momentum during the Impressionist era in the early 20th century. 

A thirteenth chord is the farthest diatonic extension possible as all seven tones are represented in the chord. 

However, generally extended chords do not use all the notes contained within the traditional chord.

Important Galant Style Composers

We really can’t even talk about Impressionism in music without discussing the works of the two most influential Impressionist composers of the time – Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel.

Their interpretations of music revamped how composers and music theorists thought about music at the time.

Ravel and Debussy implemented rhythms, cadences, and tonality in wholly different ways than had been done before.

Their musical innovations opened up new doors to musical experimentation and have informed contemporary musicians to this day.

The works of Impressionist composers may well continue to influence musicians well into the future. 

Other influential Impressionist composers include Manuel de Falla, Jean Sibelius, and Lili Boulanger and a host of other composers that made significant contributions to the genre. 

Major composers include:

Claude Debussy

French composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918) was one of the most influential composers of Impressionist music and remains so to this day.

Music artists, composers, and theorists continue to explore the magical fluidity and rhythmic experimentation that mark his works. “Prelude L’apres-midi D’un Faune” was his earliest acclaimed public work. 

Other major works by Debussy include the opera Thais, particularly the “Meditation” piece, the song “Reverie,” and the ever-popular “Claire de Lune.”

Maurice Ravel

French composer, pianist, and conductor Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) is second only to Debussy in popularity and lasting influence from the Impressionist era.

His most recognizable works include “Pavane Pour Une Infante Défunte” (“Pavane for a Dead Princess”), “Mirrors” (“Reflections”), and the ballet Daphne et Chloe, featuring the piece “Daybreak.”

Pavane Pour Une Infante Défunte – Maurice Ravel

Jean Sibelius

Like Debussy, Finnish composer and pianist Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) excelled at featuring each instrument for a moment to play a melody and then echoing that motif and in another instrument or voice. “13 Pieces For Piano, Op.76: 2. Etude” exemplifies Sibelius’ sweet style, and “Finlandia” showcases his flexibility and flowing Impressionism. Sibelius’ contribution to music is so pervasive, in the 21st century, we have a DAW software program named after the composer and musician.

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

Lili Boulanger

French female composer Lili Boulanger was the first woman to win the Prix de Rome prize for composition and Impressionist music’s most eminent female composers.

Boulanger’s “Nocturne” is an excellent example of how Impressionist composers played with harmony by using atonal chords to build tension before landing on a diatonic base then moving on harmonically.

Nocturne – Lili Boulanger

Instrumentation

Many instruments used in Impressionism are commonly used today.

String instruments like violins and cellos often feature in Impressionist compositions. 

Impressionist music often showcases woodwind instruments, especially the flute. Brass instruments were kept in the background if used at all.

The Piano replaced the harpsichord, and compositions used them as foundational instruments in orchestral, chamber, and duet pieces.

Following on the Romantic leanings toward minimalism in instrumentation, duets gained more favor in Impressionist music, as the dichotomy between two feature instruments or voices could express emotion and evoke more poignant feelings than fuller, louder traditional orchestral arrangements. 

Chamber orchestras, quintets, quartets, and such were favored in Impressionist music.

Summary

This concludes our guide to Impressionism in music. We have learned about extended harmonies, ambiguous tonality, and parallel chords. 

We have covered some of the most beloved composers and enduring works of the Impressionist period.

We hope you have enjoyed learning more about Impressionism in music and exploring some of the era’s most essential works from this influential musical period.

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Written by Dan Farrant
Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 10 years helping thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. Since then he's been working to make music theory easy for over 1 million students in over 80 countries around the world.