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The impressionist movement in music was a movement in European classical music, mainly in France, that began in the late nineteenth century and continued into the middle of the twentieth century. Like its precursor in the visual arts, musical Impressionism focused on suggestion and atmosphere rather than strong emotion or the depiction of a story as in program music. Musical Impressionism occurred as a reaction to the excesses of the Romantic era. While this era was characterized by a dramatic use of the major and minor scale system, Impressionist music tends to make more use of dissonance and more uncommon scales such as the whole tone scale. Romantic composers also used long forms of music such as the symphony and concerto, while Impressionist composers favored short forms such as the nocturne, arabesque, and prelude.

Musical Impressionism was based in Francemarker, and the French composers Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel are generally considered to be the two "great" Impressionists. However, composers are generally not as accurately described by the term "Impressionism" as painters in the genre are. Debussy renounced it, saying, "I am trying to do 'something different' – in a way realities – what the imbeciles call 'impressionism' is a term which is as poorly used as possible, particularly by art critics." Maurice Ravel composed many other pieces that aren't identified as Impressionist. Nonetheless, the term is widely used today to describe the music seen as a reaction to 19th century Romanticism.

Many musical instructions in "impressionist" pieces are written in French, as opposed to the traditional Italian.

Impressionism also gained a foothold in England, where its traits were assimilated by composers such as Ralph Vaughan Williams, Arnold Bax, and Frederick Delius. Vaughan Williams in particular exhibited music infused with Impressionistic gestures--this was not coincidence, as he was a student of Maurice Ravel. Vaughan Williams' music utilizes melodies and harmonies found in English folk music, such as the pentatonic scale and modes, making it perfectly suited to the polarity-breaking ideals of the Impressionist movement, which began moving away from the Major-minor based tonality of the Romantic composers.

Impressionist composers

Besides the two "great" impressionist composers, Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, other impressionists include George Butterworth, Paul Dukas, Charles Griffes, Alexander Scriabin, Karol Szymanowski and Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Ernest Fanelli was claimed to have innovated the style, though his works were unperformed before 1912.

Impressionism also influenced the music of Manuel de Falla, Frederick Delius, Isaac Albéniz,Enrique Granados, Ned Rorem, Erik Satie, Camille Saint-Saëns, Zoltán Kodály, Ottorino Respighi, and Francis Poulenc, as well as jazz musicians such as Bill Evans.


  • Machlis, Joseph and Forney, Kristine. The Enjoyment of Music: Seventh Edition, W.W. Norton & Company, 1995, ISBN 0-393-96643-7

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