impressionist painting by Monet.
Scan by Mark Harden.
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).
(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 of it.
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.)
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