at the Piano" by Pierre Auguste Renoir]
Throughout history, art and music have developed in parallel with
each other. The impressionist movement is no exception.
Impressionism in art began in France near the end of the 19th
century. As you can see in the example to the right, impressionist
painters did not seek to show reality in the classical sense of a
picture-perfect image; instead, they emphasized light and color to
give an overall "impression" of their subjects.
impressionist painting by Monet.
Scan by Mark
Much in the same way, impressionism in music aims to create
descriptive impressions, not necessarily to draw clear pictures.
The music is not designed to explicitly describe anything, but
rather to create a mood or atmosphere. This is done through almost
every aspect of music: melody, harmony, color, rhythm, and form.
Melodies tend to be short in nature, often repeated in different
contexts to give different moods. In terms of color (see also
chromaticism), notes are often
drawn from scale systems other than the traditional major and
minor. These include pentatonic, whole-tone, or other exotic scales
(for example, Debussy, a
major figure of impressionism, was influenced by asian music).
The use (or misuse, as some critics might say) of harmony was a
major part of impressionism. Impressionists did not use chords in
the traditional way. For nearly the entire history of Western
music, chords had been used to build and relieve tension, thus
giving the music a sense of direction. A nice example to use here
is Mozart's famous Sonata in A, K.331. You can
defininitely hear the harmonies constantly leading the music
forward until it finally reaches resolution on the final note.
(MIDI): Sonata in A, K.331 by Wolfgang Mozart...
the "traditional" use of harmony
(RealAudio): L'îsle Joyeuse by Claude
Debussy... harmony, impressionist style!
Now to provide an example of impressionism, we have "L'îsle Joyeuse" ("The Island
of Joy") by Claude Debussy.
This is actually a musical interpretation of the painting "The Embarkation for Cythera" by
Jean-Antoine Watteau. Both the painting and the piece tell the
story of a journey to the mythical island of Cythera, an ideal
place of love and beauty. The opening trills suggest the excited
anticipation of the travelers; a middle section depicts them
floating over the water; their arrival is heralded by jubilant
trumpeting; and their ecstatic joy in realizing their destination
provides a climactic finish. The chords in this piece sometimes
serve no harmonic purpose in the traditional sense; these chords
set the joyful "color" and mood of the piece, and are no longer
exclusively used to build and release tension. Sometimes the melody
isn't very clear, but rather implied... we only get an impression
Impressionism marked the first major steps into the
Debussy and Maurice
Ravel. An especially noteworthy aspect of impressionism was the
weakening of the concept of tonality. Even though impressionist music was
still tonal in nature, the "non-functional" chords paved the way
for the later likes of
Schoenberg, and others to do away with tonality altogether
(this is discussed further on the page dealing with atonalism.)