Impressionism is a term most familiar to fans of late 19th century painters such as Monet, Renoir, Cézanne, and Degas among other notable names. In fact, the term derives from Monet’s Impression, Sunrise. In general, impressionist painters focused on using visual brush strokes to paint overall visual effects and capture light and its changing qualities rather than focusing on details. They also tended to paint en plein air rather than in the studio.
Impressionist paintings depict experiences, moods, and movement. Similarly, Impressionist music also conveys moods, scenes, and emotions rather than detailed stories. This style of classical music was written around the same time (late 19th century) and uses “color” or timbre through different textures, harmonics, and orchestrations to arouse feelings and create atmosphere.
Notable Impressionist composers include:
- Claude Debussy
- Maurice Ravel
- Ernest Fanelli
- Frederick Delius
- Erik Satie
- Ottavino Resphigi
- Ralph Vaughan Williams
- Jean Sibelius
Interestingly, while he is often referred to as Impressionist, Debussy rejected the label. Even Ravel was uncomfortable with the name saying it could not be accurately applied to music.
Impressionist music often has an evocative title. For example, Debussy’s Clair de lune or “Moonlight”. While it is actually the third movement of a larger work known as Suite bergamasque, the piece is more famous on its own performed in its original form by solo piano or adapted for orchestra. And when you hear its lush melodies and dramatic ebbs and flows, it’s not hard to see why it is a great example of French Impressionism in music.
Other Impressionist music titles include Debussy’s La Mer and Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, Sibelius’ The Swan of Tuonela, and Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé.