In music, a style initiated by French composer Claude Debussy at the end of the 19th century. The term, which is somewhat vague in reference to music, was introduced by analogy with contemporaneous French painting; it was disliked by Debussy himself. Elements often termed impressionistic include static harmony, emphasis on instrumental timbres that creates a shimmering interplay of colours, melodies that lack directed motion, surface ornamentation that obscures or substitutes for melody, and an avoidance of traditional musical form. Impressionism can be seen as a reaction against the rhetoric of Romanticism, disrupting the forward motion of standard harmonic progressions. The other composer most often associated with Impressionism is Maurice Ravel. Impressionistic passages are common in earlier music by Frdric Chopin, Franz Liszt, and Richard Wagner, and in music by later composers such as Charles Ives, Bla Bartk, and George Gershwin.

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impressionism, in music, a French movement in the late 19th and early 20th cent. It was begun by Debussy in reaction to the dramatic and dynamic emotionalism of romantic music, especially that of Wagner. Reflecting the impressionist schools of French painting and letters, Debussy developed a style in which atmosphere and mood take the place of strong emotion or of the story in program music. He used new chord combinations, whole-tone chords, chromaticism, and exotic rhythms and scales. In place of the usual harmonic progression, he developed a style in which chords are valued for their individual sonorities rather than for their relations to one another, and dissonances are unprepared and unresolved. Although conceived in reaction to romanticism, musical impressionism seems today the culmination of romanticism. Its influence was widespread and is evident in the music of Ravel, Dukas, Respighi, Albéniz, de Falla, Delius, C. T. Griffes, and J. A. Carpenter.


See C. Palmer, Impressionism in Music (1973).

A stylistic period of composition that sought to put to music only the most immediate, direct impressions, upon the composer, of a given subject. Impressionism avoided traditional harmony of thirds, employing more often quartal or quintal tonality.

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Impressionist music

Impressionist music
Stylistic origins Reaction to 19th century Romanticism[contradiction]
Cultural origins Late 19th century in Paris, France
Typical instruments Woodwind, strings, harp, piano, small chamber ensembles[citation needed]
Periods of Western classical music
Medieval (500–1400)
Renaissance (1400–1600)
Baroque (1600–1760)
Common practice
Baroque (1600–1760)
Classical (1730–1820)
Romantic (1815–1910)
Impressionist (1875 to 1925)
Modern and contemporary
Modern (1890–1930)
20th century (1901–2000)
Contemporary (1975–present)
21st century (2001–present)

Impressionism in music was a movement in European classical music, mainly in France, which appeared in the late nineteenth century and continued into the beginning of the twentieth century from 1875 to 1925. Similarly to its precursor in the visual arts, musical impressionism focuses on a suggestion and an atmosphere rather than on a strong emotion or the depiction of a story as in program music.[citation needed] Musical impressionism followed as a progression[citation needed] from the Romantic era, leading to 20th century and modern music styles.[vague]



Musical impressionism was based in France by the French composer Claude Debussy. He and Maurice Ravel were generally considered to be the two "great" impressionists. However, these days composers are generally not as accurately described by the term "Impressionism" as painters in the genre were. 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."[1]

Impressionist composers

Ernest Fanelli was claimed to have innovated the style, though his works were unperformed before 1912.[2]

Impressionism has also influenced at least some of the music of Isaac Albéniz, John Alden Carpenter, Frederick Delius, Paul Dukas, Manuel de Falla, Charles Tomlinson Griffes, and Ottorino Respighi.[3]


  1. ^ Tsai, Shengdar. Impressionistic Influences in the Music of Claude Debussy. Accessed 22 July 2006.
  2. ^ Adriano, Ernest Fanelli (1860-1917), Symphonic Pictures, Marco Polo, p.1-4
  3. ^ *"Impressionism, in Music". The Columbia Encyclopedia (6th ed. ed.). New York: Columbia University Press. Retrieved 2012-12-25. (Archive copy from 3 April 2009).

Further reading

  • "Impressionism". Encarta Concise Encyclopedia. Microsoft Corporation.
  • Machlis, Joseph and Forney, Kristine. The Enjoyment of Music: Seventh Edition, W.W. Norton & Company, 1995, ISBN 0-393-96643-7.
  • Palmer, Christopher. Impressionism in Music. London: Hutchinson; New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973.
  • Pasler, Jann. "Impressionism". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers, 2001.
  • Thompson, Oscar. Debussy, Man and Artist New York, Dodd, Mead & company, 1937.

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