Impressionists Music


It all began with a painting of a harbor scene in 1874 that Claude Monet modestly named "Impression: Sunrise." The critics mocked him, the painting and its title, using the term as a sneering put-down. No one, it seems, liked the description "impressionist" -- but it became synonymous with an artistic era that has never worn out its welcome. Debussy hated the name, though his shimmering music and that of fellow composer Maurice Ravel, perfectly captured the dreamy world of French Impressionism. In this Active Minds program, we'll sample some of the turn-of-the-century sounds that boldly broke nearly every rule in the book. 


The so-called "Classical" era in music was focused on the culturally exploding city of Vienna at the end of the 18th Century. Similarly, the "Impressionist" era had its roots in Paris toward the conclusion of the 19th Century. Unlike the calm, conservative Viennese world of Mozart and Haydn, the Paris of the 1870s and '80s was boiling over with radical artistic ideas. Cafes were filled with animated conversations among painters, poets, playwrights and musicians. Leading the way toward new creative thinking were the poets, led by Stephane Mallarmé, Arthur Rimbaud and Charles Baudelaire, and the painters, led by Monet and Manet. The latter in particular objected to their backward-thinking teachers, who groomed their best students to enter and win art competitions that stressed traditional techniques and subjects. It was Claude Monet who started the ball rolling in 1874 with his soft, blue-and-orange depiction of a sunrise at the harbor of Le Havre. Almost as an afterthought, he titled the painting "Impression: Soleil Levant" -- Impression: Sunrise. The work was part of an exhibition mounted by Monet and his friends, including Degas and Pissarro. An influential art critic scoffed at the show, and specifically at Monet's work. And he really hated its title: "Since I was impressed, there had to be some impression in it," the sarcastic Louis Leroy wrote, clearly un-impressed with the use of the term that would soon label the anti-realist paintings of Monet, Cezanne, Renoir, Manet and the others. When the same term was used to describe the music of Claude Debussy some years later, he offered strong disagreement, explaining, "I am trying to do 'something different'—an effect of reality, what the imbeciles call 'impressionism', a term which is as poorly used as possible, particularly by the critics." But the name stuck. However you describe the ground-breaking and wonderfully diverse music of Debussy and Erik Satie -- and, later on, Maurice Ravel -- there are common elements in their compositions. As part of their rebellion against the conservative rules imposed by their teachers, the painters, writers and composers of Paris intentionally broke the rules, creating new ways of looking and thinking and hearing. Poets such as Mallarmé began writing free-form verse that created dreamy images in the reader's mind, serving as a guide for many composers. The first "hit" of Impressionist music, Debussy's "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun," was inspired by a Mallarmé poem. The rules that were broken included utilizing starkly different musical scales (inspired in large part by the Oriental music Debussy heard at the Paris Exhibition of 1889) and inventing new chords, while mocking the traditional scales and chords of the past. The turn of the century was a time of nose-thumbing creativity in Paris that paved the way for the 20th Century's embrace of modern art. By dismissing the ordered world of the past 100 years, the Impressionists opened the door to a new way of expressing ideas and viewing the world. Now, melodies were less important than mood-setting, while light and dark gained more attention than color and recognizable shapes and forms. Satie served as the unofficial jester of the movement, mocking 18th-Century tonality by ending a minute-long piece with an endless series of "ta-daaa!" chords. For those who complained that his music had no form, Satie composed "Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear." From then on, the arts refused to look back, instead leaping boldly into the future.

Exploration Questions

  • Who were some of the poets and playwrights who helped define the Impressionist movement?
  • What are whole-tone scales and pentatonic scales and how do they impact melody?
  • Who were some of the non-French composers who were later influenced by the Impressionist movement?

Reflective Questions

  • Why do you think Impressionist paintings have become so popular among museum-goers?
  • What mental pictures do you imagine when you listen to works such as Debussy's "Fêtes" or Ravel's "Daphnis et Chloe"?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading

  • Herbert, Robert L. Impressionism: Art, Leisure and Parisian Society. Yale University Press. 1991. 312 pages. Thought it focuses on the artists and their paintings of late-19th Century Paris, Herbert's highly readable book illuminates the social world of the time, giving fresh insight to the lively atmosphere that inspired composers of the day, as well as painters.
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  • Brown, Matthew. Debussy Redux: The Impact of His Music on Popular Culture (Musical Meaning and Interpretation). Indiana UniversityPress. 2012. 240 pages. As its title suggests, this scholarly, well-researched study examines the many influences of Debussy's works, from contemporaries such as Ravel all the way to modern film scores and (gasp!) easy-listening background music.
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