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Music In The Modern Era


Peter Kun Frary


Music from previous eras such as the Baroque and Classical conformed to consistent norms of style. Nineteenth century Romanticism grew increasingly varied and individualistic, twisting and stretching it’s stylistic constrains until they broke. As the twentieth century dawned, musical styles multiplied and evolved rapidly, never again to conform to a single stylistic standard. Impressionism was the first significant music style to challenge Romanticism before the twentieth century.

Impression, soleil levant 1872 (Impression, Sunrise) | Claude Monet (1840–1926) | Monet's painting, Impression, soleil levant, was part of an exhibit that introduced Impressionism to the French public in 1874.


Impressionism began in 1860s France as a painting style depicting visual impressions of the moment, especially shifting light and color. The shimmering textures and misty forms of these paintings appear shapeless viewed close up but reveal their understated form from across the room. As a movement, Impressionism was organized across disciples as musicians and other French artists soon joined in.

Impressionism in music was anti-realistic and anti-romantic, avoiding the extreme emotions of Romantic music. It also avoided detailed programs and musical conventions common to Romanticism. Instead, Impressionism focused on suggestion and atmosphere, conveying fleeting moods and emotions with a kaleidoscope of shifting harmonies and timbres.

Musical Impressionists further differentiated themselves by breaking the Classical and Romantic rules of melody, harmony, orchestration and meter. For example, Romantic composers used an extreme range of dynamics whereas Impressionists preferred understatement, light textures and carefully graded dynamics.

Water Lilies, 1916-17 | Claude Monet (1840–1926) | de Young Museum

The most significant technique in Impressionism is the expressive use of timbre, i.e., tone color. Impressionistic composers often used instruments in a soloistic manner, striving to highlight individual tonal colors rather than blend them. New timbres were created by using extreme ranges of instruments or, sometimes, by placing mutes on string instruments and brass to create a soft and distant timbre.

String tremolos and extended harp arpeggios were frequently employed to create sound "mist" over which delicate solos could be sprinkled. Listen to tremolo and harp arpeggio excerpts from Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun:

String tremolo and oboe solo

Harp arpeggios and French horn solo

Likewise, unusual instrumental combinations and chord voicings, e.g., high pitched violin harmonics with low brass, were often used. Finally, Impressionistic orchestral textures tend to be lighter and more transparent compared to the all-hands-on-deck sound of Romantic symphonies. Thus, softer instruments such as the harp and flute could be, and often were, used as soloists within the orchestra.

Other elements of music Impressionism involve, again, breaking the rules of Romantic and Classical harmony: choosing chords for color rather than function, adding dissonant notes to chords and using chords in parallel motions (chord streams) without resolving. For example, the final chord of Ravel's Menuet from Le tombeau de Couperin is a G major nine (Gmaj9) with five chord tones (G B D F-sharp A). A typical Classical or Romantic piece uses a simple G Major chord with three chord tones (G B D). The extra chord tones in Ravel's final chord were considered dissonant tones in prior eras but are used here for color.

G major chord followed by G major 9

End of Ravel's Menuet with G major 9

Ambiguous tonality was further enhanced by avoiding major and minor scales in melodies. Instead, melodies were often based on pentatonic scales, modes and whole tone scales, further distancing Impressionism from German Romanticism.

A pentatonic scale has five tones rather than the seven used in major and minor scales. The sound of a pentatonic scale:

Listen to the pentatonic melody in Maurice Ravel's Empress of the Pagodas:

A whole tone scale is made of tones separated by whole steps (two half-steps). The sound of a whole tone scale:

Here's a passage from Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun that uses the whole tone scale:

Claude Debussy c. 1908 | Félix Nadar (1820–1910) | Wikimedia Commons

Claude Debussy (1862-1918), along with Maurice Ravel (1875–1937), were the main proponents of musical Impressionism. Debussy's works were a seminal force in the music of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, extending far beyond the borders of his native France.

Born in St. Germain de Fleurville, France in 1862, Debussy studied music at the Paris Conservatory from the age of ten to twenty-two. Like Berlioz before him, Debussy won the Prix de Rome. His influences include Russian and Asian music, and the ideas of French writers and poets such as Verlaine, Mallarmè and Baudelaire.

Debussy is credited with developing an original system of harmony and formal structure that expressed musically many of the ideals Impressionist painters and Symbolist writers of his time aspired to. His major works include Clair de lune (1890–1905), the opera Pelléas et Mélisande (1902), La Mer (1905, The Sea) and Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1894, Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun).

Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun

Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune) was written in 1894 and is one of the best known examples of musical Impressionism. The vague metrical pulse, transparent orchestral textures, unusual timbres, and ambiguous tonality are hallmarks of the style. Debussy says this about the work:

The music of this prelude is a very free illustration of Mallarmé's beautiful poem. By no means does it claim to be a synthesis of it. Rather there is a succession of scenes through which pass the desires and dreams of the faun in the heat of the afternoon. Then, tired of pursuing the timorous flight of nymphs and naiads, he succumbs to intoxicating sleep, in which he can finally realize his dreams of possession in universal Nature.

A Seated Faun, c. 1755-57 | Jean Restout II (1692-1768) | The Museum of Fine Arts | The faun is a mythological creature of mixed human and goat linage: human from head to waist but goat below the belt. He's reputed to be an accomplished flautist and Don Juan of the woodlands.

Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun is a single movement orchestral work and, although Debussy avoided referring to it as a programmatic work (smacks too much of Romanticism), it suggests the sights and sounds of an amorous woodland creature, the Faun, and his dreamy escapades with flute, wine and nymphs.

The Prelude is organized in three sections: A B A' (ternary form). The Faun's flute solo is the main theme and is heard immediately. Rhythms roll out of the flute with a lazy feel due to the lack of a strong metric pulse, while the chromatic notes disguise tonality:

As the piece gains momentum, a new and more playful theme is introduced by an oboe:

In the B section, the woodwinds present a lyrical theme in long singing notes while building a crescendo:

Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (1894) | Claude Debussy (11:45)

Wisteria, 1925 | Claude Monet (1840–1926) | Gemeentemuseum Den Haag


Impressionism, pentatonic scale, faun

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