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Piano in the Impressionist Period: Composing a Mood

JohnMello is a writer, composer, musician, and author of books for children and adults.

Claude Monet's 1872 oil on canvas entitled "Impression, soleil levant" (Impression, Sunrise) is thought to be the source of the Impressionist movement.

Claude Monet's 1872 oil on canvas entitled "Impression, soleil levant" (Impression, Sunrise) is thought to be the source of the Impressionist movement.

What Is Impressionism?

Like most movements in the arts, Impressionism was partly a reaction to what came before it. The style was employed by a group of Paris-based artists in the late 19th century, led by Claude Monet whose painting titled Impression, Sunrise led one art critic to coin the phrase "impressionism," which was actually meant sarcastically.

Impressionism in Music

Impressionism in music blossomed in France near the end of the Romantic period, roughly between the years 1890 and 1920. Composers were more concerned with depicting atmosphere and suggesting colours than with trying to arouse emotions or tell a story. Just as with their counterparts in the art world, composers were looking for new ways to express themselves, using techniques that often flouted or disregarded conventional composition theory completely.

"Voiles" From Debussy's Preludes Book 1

What Impressionist Composers Did Differently

Composers of Impressionist music were looking for something new. The music of Wagner and Mahler had taken the major-minor system to new heights in works that sometimes lasted for hours and called for hundreds of performers. Composers such as Debussy, Ravel and Satie decided to take a different approach by writing music that was less tonally focused and written for much smaller forces.

One way they achieved harmonic ambiguity was through the use of modes. Listen to Debussy's piece entitled "Voiles" (in the video above) and you can hear how it opens with and is based on a whole-tone scale. The use of modes and different scales like this helped Impressionist composers find unique ways of making music.

When it came to using smaller forces, the Impressionist composers turned to the piano, giving it something of a rebirth from their singular and unique perspective.

Of all the Impressionist composers, Claude Debussy (1862–1918) is considered the one most closely associated with the style

Of all the Impressionist composers, Claude Debussy (1862–1918) is considered the one most closely associated with the style

Understanding Impressionist Music

According to Wikipedia, Impressionism is a style of music that "focuses on suggestion and atmosphere" to give the listener a suggestion of a thing rather than trying to paint a picture of it. Composers were able to achieve this by making use of a number of techniques:

  • Scales and modes: They made extensive use of all the modes, the whole-tone scale, the chromatic scale and the pentatonic scale
  • Parallel motion: A technique forbidden in the music that came before it, Impressionist composers let voices move together in fourths, fifths and octaves without worrying about the concept of contrary motion
  • Unusual orchestrations: They often created delicate textures within the orchestra by using extreme registers of instruments, having them play incredibly soft and focusing more on colour or timbre
The whole tone scale made up of six notes (hexatonic) starting on C.

The whole tone scale made up of six notes (hexatonic) starting on C.

The black keys form a natural pentatonic (five-note) scale.

The black keys form a natural pentatonic (five-note) scale.

Listen to Debussy's "La fille aux cheveux de lin" (the Girl With the Flaxen Hair) and you'll hear the black note pentatonic scale used in the introduction of the main theme. The first four notes of the theme as they appear in the tune are numbered in the picture above.

Debussy, "The Girl With the Flaxen Hair"

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How Parallel Motion Works

Below you'll see an excerpt from the tune for Good King Wenceslas. In the first example, it is harmonised as you would normally hear it. In the second, the harmony uses only parallel fourths. There's a video following the two photos so you can also hear what it sounds like.

The tune from Good King Wenceslas using traditional harmony

The tune from Good King Wenceslas using traditional harmony

The tune from Good King Wenceslas with parallel 4ths

The tune from Good King Wenceslas with parallel 4ths

Short Video on Parallel Motion

The Bridge to 20th-Century Music

Of course, Impressionism didn't just appear out of thin air. It marks a progression from the heights of Romanticism directly into what we now call twentieth-century music. And the bridge between those two is believed to have been one particular piece of music written by Claude Debussy, entitled "Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune."

The French composer Pierre Boulez (1925–2016) went so far as to say that "modern music was awakened" by "L'après-midi d'un faune" (Leaving Home: Conducted Tour of 20th Century Music; Hall, Michael; Faber & Faber; First Edition edition (1 Nov. 1996); p 93).

You can listen to its haunting opening flute melody, making use of the chromatic scale, in the video below.

Debussy's "L'après-midi d'un faune"

Where Does Impressionism Come From?

What's in a Name? Composers and Impressionistic Titles

It's easy to see how Impressionist composers were so heavily influenced by the poetry and painting of the time. Here, for example, are titles from some of the better-known Impressionist pieces of music:

  • "Images for Orchestra," Debussy
  • "Jeux" (games), Debussy
  • "Estampes" (print or engraving), Debussy
  • "Pavane pour une infante defunte" (Pavane for a dead princess or infanta), Ravel
  • "L'isle joyeuse" (the joyful island), Debussy
  • "Reflets Dans L'eau" (reflections in the water), Debussy
  • "Apres un Reve" (after a dream), Faure
  • "The Snow is Dancing," Debussy

Titles like these make sense when you consider what the Impressionist composers were trying to achieve. Their goal was to create an atmosphere—not to describe a place but to establish a mood.

Maurice Ravel at the piano in a photo taken in 1912

Maurice Ravel at the piano in a photo taken in 1912

The Main Features of Impressionism in Music

Like all the movements throughout the ages, Impressionism was another step along a continuously developing path. It formed a bridge between the music of the late Romantics and that of the twentieth century. It continued to influence composers long after its main proponents were gone. Here are its most significant features at a glance:

  • Conveyed an atmosphere, mood or subtle feeling as opposed to the strong emotions portrayed in Romantic music
  • Ignored and often disregarded many of the rules for creating major/minor harmonies
  • Employed modes and scales to give their work a fresh new twist
  • Wrote smaller works for smaller ensembles replacing large symphonic works with pieces for solo piano, piano and voice, and so on
  • Focused a lot of energy on creating delicate and shimmering orchestrations to better reflect this new music of theirs

Another thing Impressionist composers did was to treat chords differently. Instead of simply being points along a harmonic path, now chords were given their own identities, so to speak. Chords could often stand alone and it wasn't always necessary to resolve them as had been essential in the past.

A good example of many of these features can be seen and heard in Debussy's piece entitled "La cathédrale engloutie" (The sunken cathedral). In the video below you can see that the piece opens with chords moving upwards in parallel motion. It also begins pianissimo (pp). Notice also how when it reaches the final chord in the first bar, the chord just hangs there. It doesn't move to another chord but stands on its own and is allowed to resonate.

Later on in the piece, at 2:35 in this video, we hear the so-called "organ chords" where four-note chords are played by both hands moving upwards and downwards in parallel motion, and this time fortissimo (ff). Notice also how the first note in the bar (low C) is held down with the sustain pedal to produce a slightly muddy sound, which is perfect to suggest or give an impression of the sounds emerging from underwater.

Debussy's "The Sunken Cathedral" (La cathédrale engloutie)

Other Impressionist Composers

While Debussy and Ravel are the two composers most closely associated with Impressionist music, they aren't the only ones. Others include Erik Satie and Paul Dukas, both French. Then there's the Spaniard Manuel de Falla, the American Charles Griffes, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Frederick Delius, both English, and the Italian Ottavino Resphigi.

One of the things that make Ravel and Debussy stand out from the others is the amount of music they wrote for the piano. These include pieces for solo piano, for two pianos, for piano and other instruments and for piano and voice. Here is a list of Debussy's solo piano music in chronological order to give you an idea of the breadth of his output:

  • Deux arabesques (1888, 1891)
  • Valse romantique (1890)
  • Suite bergamasque (1890–1905)
  • Pour le piano suite (1894–1901)
  • Estampes (1903)
  • Masques (1904)
  • L'isle joyeuse (1904)
  • Images, Set 1 (1905)
  • Reflets dans l'eau (1905)
  • Children's Corner (1906–1908)
  • Préludes, Book 1 (1909–1910)
  • Préludes, Book 2 (1912–1913)
  • Études (1915)

Meanwhile, Ravel's solo piano compositions include:

  • Menuet antique (1895)
  • Pavane pour une infante défunte (1899)
  • Jeux d'eau (1901)
  • Sonatine (1903-05)
  • Miroirs (1904-05)
  • Gaspard de la nuit after Aloysius Bertrand (1908)
  • Menuet sur le nom d'Haydn (1909)
  • Valses nobles et sentimentales (1911)
  • Le tombeau de Couperin (1914-17)
Photograph of the composer and pianist Franz Liszt taken by Franz Hanfstaengl in 1858

Photograph of the composer and pianist Franz Liszt taken by Franz Hanfstaengl in 1858

As mentioned above, Impressionism didn't just pop up from nowhere. When it comes to the piano music of that period, you can see a direct link with what came before it. This is blatantly obvious in the late piano music of Franz Liszt. Listen to the opening of his "Les Jeux d'Eaux à la Villa d'Este" (The Fountains of the Villa d'Este), for example, and you could be forgiven for thinking it was a piece by Debussy or Ravel.

It's not a coincidence that Ravel wrote a solo piano piece called "Jeux d'eau," as well. According to Wikipedia, the French composer took his inspiration for the work from Liszt's music and from the noise made by water as it travels through brooks and cascades over rocks. And if you listen to both pieces you'll notice that, while they're naturally quite different and unique, they both open with a series of arpeggio figures played quickly and pianissimo (pp).

Quiz on Impressionism

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. When was the Impressionist movement in music?
    • 1920-1950
    • 1890-1920
    • 1850-1950
  2. Which of these are features of Impressionism in music?
    • Create a mood or atmosphere
    • Employ parallel motion
    • Use modes and scales other than major-minor
    • All of the above
  3. Who were the main proponents of Impressionist music?
    • Beethoven and Liszt
    • Daphnis and Chloe
    • Debussy and Ravel
  4. Where did the term "Impressionism" come from?
    • A painting by Monet called Impression, Sunrise
    • No-one knows for sure
    • It refers to making impressions in paper with stamps
  5. Which Impressionist piece is considered to mark the beginning of twentieth century music?
    • Pavane pour un infante defunte
    • Bolero
    • Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune

Answer Key

  1. 1890-1920
  2. All of the above
  3. Debussy and Ravel
  4. A painting by Monet called Impression, Sunrise
  5. Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune

Questions & Answers

Question: What are some similarities between Debussy's "The Sunken Cathedral" and Monet's painting shown here?

Answer: Both the piece and the painting give an impression of something. The music gives an impression of a cathedral that's underwater using the piano in an imaginative way. The painting gives an impression of sunrise on a river using an imaginative painting technique. In both cases, there is a blurred feeling that suggests at the subject rather than pointing it out directly. They give the listener or viewer an idea of a place or thing that stimulates his or her imagination using techniques that have not been used previously.


JohnMello on October 31, 2018:

Glad you liked it Big BOY & NewsUnlimited.

Big BOY 1269 on March 19, 2018:

This really made an impression on me

JohnMello (author) from England on February 19, 2017:

Thanks heidithorne for your positive feedback. Much appreciated :)

Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on February 19, 2017:

Whenever I look at Monet or Renoir paintings, Debussy's Clair de Lune is always running through my head. Probably because my father was an accomplished professional pianist and I heard this kind of stuff all the time. Great review of the period and what it brought to the world. Cheers!

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