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Impressionism Celebration

Monet: Piano Classics from the Age of Impressionism
Martin Souter


The Gift of Music
Rel. 1 Jan 2002

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Impressionism Celebration Concert
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The music of the Impressionist Period (c.1880–1925) is characterized by a newly creative exploration of musical timbre or color via orchestration, as well as by harmonic and melodic innovation – most notably in the works of the two dominant French composers at the fin de siècle, Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. With metaphoric connections to the like-named movement in the visual arts, Debussy and Ravel – as well as Paul Dukas, Eric Satie, Manuel de Falla, and others composers who fell under the “impressionist” spell – explored new sounds via such techniques as parallel triads and whole-tone scales, as well as by embracing various “impressionist” topics, and in general by boldly breaking the conventions of the preceding era of German-Romantic dominance. This “Impressionism Celebration” is the next in our series of features devoted to the nine principal periods of music history, whereby we invite our visitors – regardless of experience – to explore and discover the many composers and works that exalt the era, and some of the outstanding artists that successfully bring it to our modern ears. Specifically, this Feature includes a brief written Overview of the Impressionist era, as well as a useful index of key composers, works, and artists – each of which is linked to the related page on our site. In addition, we provide a two-hour 1-Click Concert (full streams to our subscribers only), a featured “sampler” album, and a set of “Impressionism” videos. Enjoy!

“Music expresses the motion of the waters, the play of curves described by changing breezes.”
– Claude Debussy

Impressionist Period Overview

The term "Impressionist" was first coined in the mid-1870s, as a critically derisive term, of the light- and color-focused paintings of a small band of Paris-based artists, the so-called "Salon des Refusés" (Salon of the Refused) - among them Manet, Renoir, Degas, and especially Monet, whose Impression, soleil levant inspired the name. The application of the term to music, from the 1880s, was a rather predictable extension, though most composers to whom it was applied renounced its application - most famously Claude Debussy, who claimed that those critics who apply it to music are "imbeciles", and that instead he is simply trying to do "something different."

Their protestations notwithstanding, however, there are indeed aesthetic and technical corollaries between visual and musical "impressionism" that can be identified empirically. Most prominent is the notion of "color". In music, the more conventional term is "timbre", which is defined largely through orchestration, but likewise through harmonic usage, texture, etc. Creative exploration of musical timbre via orchestration certainly predates the Impressionist period, but it was especially this generation that opened up timbre as a first-tier parameter, to be exploited and pursued in its own right. In orchestral works such as Debussy's La Mer or Maurice Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé, unusual usage or combinations of instruments, particularly at soft dynamic levels, are a common feature and give the works a distinctly "coloristic" sound, that would open up new possibilities to later composers. Even in works for solo piano - such as Debussy's Preludes – new timbres are explored via extremes of register, as well as by unique and "colorful" approaches to harmony and melody. Indeed, it is in the realm of harmony that the Impressionist "sound" is most readily identified: via such techniques as parallel triads, whole-tone scales, blurring of tonal identity, extended or chromatic chords (9ths, 11ths, 13ths), etc. Another corollary between music and painting can be discerned in their mutual fascination with certain "impressionist" themes or topics - such as water, reflection, reverie, etc. More generally, though, artists in both fields were motivated by a desire to break down old conventions in order to explore new methods and techniques; in music this meant turning away from the Romantic-Germanic emphasis on traditional large-scale forms, thematic unity, and development, in favor of smaller, individual forms and work-specific techniques.

Beyond the giants of the Impressionist period, Debussy and Ravel, other figures associated with the movement include the French composers Erik Satie and Paul Dukas, the Spaniard Manuel de Falla, and the American Charles Griffes, as well as - to some degree at least - Karol Szymanowski, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Frederick Delius, and Ottavino Resphigi. Among composers hailed as precursors or inspirations to later Impressionist developments include especially Modest Mussorgsky, Alexander Scriabin, and Gabriel Fauré, as well as Emmanuel Chabrier and César Franck. Further, Impressionist techniques and sonorities had resurgence among Jazz composers and performers such as Bix Biederbecke, Bill Evans, Gil Evans, and Duke Ellington. Above all, the Impressionist musical language, techniques, and aesthetic had a direct and profound influence on the revolutionary Modern period that followed.

Principal Impressionist Composers

Here is a list of the composers who, to some degree at least, fall within the Impressionist era:

Achille-Claude Debussy (1862-1918) Principal genres: Ballets; Piano Works

Frederick Delius (1862-1934) Principal genres: Orchestral Work; Chamber Works

Erik Satie (1866-1925)
Principal genres: Ballets; Orchestral Works; Piano Works

Paul Dukas (1865-1935)
Principal genres: Orchestral Works; Piano Works

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Principal genres: Symphonies; Orchestral Works; Vocal Works

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)
Principal genres: Ballets; Orchestral Works; Concertos; Piano Works

Manuel de Falla (1876-1946)
Principal genres: Operas, Ballets; Orchestral Works; Chamber Works; Piano Works

Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936)
Principal genres: Tone Poems; Orchestral Works; Violin Sonatas

Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937)
Principal genres: Symphonies; Concertos; Chamber Works; Piano Works

Charles Tomlinson Griffes (1884-1920)
Principal genres: Piano Works; Orchestral Work

Among composers hailed as precursors or inspirations to later Impressionist developments include especially Modest Mussorgsky, Alexander Scriabin, and Gabriel Fauré, as well as Emmanuel Chabrier and César Franck. Further, Impressionist techniques and sonorities had resurgence among Jazz composers and performers such as Bix Biederbecke, Bill Evans, Gil Evans, and Duke Ellington.

Key Impressionist Works

Here is a short, and quite partial, list of some of the many masterpieces of the Impressionist era. Use this list as a springboard for further musical exploration. In addition, please enjoy the 1-Click Concert above, which is in large part based upon these selections.

Debussy, Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, L.86

Debussy, Pelléas et Mélisande, L.88 (opera)

Debussy, L'isle joyeuse, L.106

Debussy, Préludes, Book 1, L.117

Debussy, Suite Bergamasque, L.75 (includes 'Clair de lune')

Debussy, La Mer: 3 symphonic sketches, L.109

Delius, Paris: A Nocturne (The Song of a Great City), RTvi/14

Satie, Parade (ballet)

Satie, 6 Gnossiennes

Satie, 3 Gymnopédies

Dukas, L'Apprenti Sorcier (The Sorcerer's Apprentice)

Vaughan-Williams, In the Fen Country (symphonic impression)

Ravel, Daphnis et Chloé (ballet)

Ravel, Gaspard de la nuit

Ravel, La valse (poème choréographique)

Ravel, String Quartet in F

Falla, El Sombrero de tres picos (The 3-Cornered Hat), G.53

Respighi, Burlesca, P.59

Szymanowski, Symphony No.3 ('The Song of the Night'), Op.27, M36

Griffes, 3 Tone-Pictures, Op.5, A.67-69

Impressionist Artists


Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra
Bordeaux Aquitaine National Orchestra
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
BRT Philharmonic Orchestra
Cleveland Orchestra
CSR Symphony Orchestra
Czecho-Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra (Bratislava)
L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande
London Symphony Orchestra
Lyon National Orchestra
Montréal Symphony Orchestra
New Queen's Hall Orchestra
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Orchestre National de Lille
Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France
Orchestre Symphonique de Québec
Orchestre Symphonique et Lyrique de Nancy
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Ulster Orchestra


Claudio Abbado
Ernest Ansermet
Pierre Boulez
Peter Breiner
Riccardo Chailly
Jean-Claude Casadesus
Myung-Whun Chung
Charles Dutoit
Myer Fredman
Valery Gergiev
Michael Gielen
Bernard Haitink
Mariss Jansons
Kenneth Jean
James Judd
Jerome Kaltenbach
Ondrej Lenard
Lorin Maazel
Jun Markl
Pierre Monteux
Charles Münch
Laurent Petitgirard
Valery Polyansky
Alexander Rahbari
Gerard Schwarz
Jonathan Seers
Constantin Silvestri
Yan Pascal Tortelier
Barry Wordsworth

Chamber Ensembles

Ad Libitum Quartet
Alexander String Quartet
Europa Galante
Kodaly Quartet
Petersen Quartet
Quartetto Italiano
Quatuor Ysaÿe
Sequoia String Quartet
Vertavo String Quartet


Martha Argerich
Claudio Arrau
Vladimir Ashkenazy
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet
Jean-Philippe Collard
Reinbert de Leeuw
Nelson Freire
Ulrich Gumpert
Olof Hojer
Heidrun Holtmann
Zoltán Kocsis
Klára Körmendi
Bruce Levingston
Michael Lewin
Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli
Ivo Pogorelich
Roland Pöntinen
David Reeves
Pascal Rogé
Carol Rosenberger
Herbert Schuch
Martin Souter
Jean-Yves Thibaudet
François-Joël Thiollier
Alexis Weissenberg

Other Soloists

Robert Aitken (flute)
Pierrette Alarie (soprano)
Juliane Banse (soprano)
Teresa Berganza (soprano)
Ellen Sejersted Bødtker (harp)
Donna Brown (soprano)
Jan de Gaetani (mezzo-soprano)
James Ehnes (violin)
Erica Goodman (flute)
Della Jones (soprano)
Chantal Juillet (violin)
Dong-Suk Kang (violin)
Gillian Keith (soprano)
Judy Loman (harp)
Albrecht Mayer (oboe)
Anders Miolin (guitar)
Camilla Nylund (soprano)
Mstislav Rostropovich (cello)
Nora Shulman (flute)
Gérard Souzay (baritone)
Jean Stilwell (mezzo-soprano)
Gerard Theruel (baritone)
Benita Valente (soprano)
Tatjana Vassilieva (cello)

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