12 Stellar Tracks That Define the Music of Impressionism
What Was the Music Wafting Around Those Water Lillies Anyway?
Guest Post by Gino Cirignano
What’s not to love about Monet, Degas, or Renoir, right?
Well, some of the most prominent art critics of the time found quite a lot wrong with such painters.
They saw impressionist work as radical.
And a general affront to their sensibilities.
Fortunately for art lovers everywhere, it didn’t stop the avant-garde movement of Impressionist painting from taking off.
But did you know world-class painters weren’t the only creative geniuses being frowned upon by European art critics at that time?
Some of our favorite classical musicians were being thrown under the bus by critics as well.
You see, many music critics of the era were longtime Wagner fans.
And the new music of composers like Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel was initially rejected too.
Thankfully Debussy and Ravel persisted anyway.
They thrived despite the opinion of the critics.
Indeed the two composers wisely chose to reflect and inspire each other. They maintained a productive, friendly rivalry. (Read more about Why Artists Need Rivals: Especially If You’re A Woman here.)
A rivalry that subsequently formed much of the music that was to become a movement; a movement that would later be called Musical Impressionism.
Consequently, Musical Impressionism was a movement that went on to win over many formerly cranky critics.
What Did the Music of Impressionism Sound Like?
Sample These 12 Tracks to Find Out
Musical impressionism used moods and emotions to paint a soundscape.
Interestingly, both Debussy and Ravel rejected being labeled “Impressionist” composers.
Yet if you listen to our first track, “Petite Suite” by Debussy, you may experience that same feeling you get when standing in front of an actual Monet, Renoir, Degas or Van Gogh in person.
Similarly, the same holds true with my second selection, “Bolero” by Ravel.
“Petite Suite” and “Bolero” are now classical music standards because they create a mood or an impression of a time, place, moment, or feeling universal to all.
The raw emotions expressed within these sonic landscapes are mesmerizing examples of Musical Impressionism.
For example, my third pick Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin” as well as my fourth, Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” can transport you into a musical world without boundaries.
Quite a first impression.
Music historians agree that Claude Debussy (1862-1918) was the first Impressionist composer. Moreover, Debussy is now considered one of the most influential composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.”
The prodigy entered the Conservatoire de Paris ( the leading musical institution in France) at the age of ten!
Debussy’s genius seems like it lay in making timeless music.
Debussy’s Most Important Work For Orchestra
Even though my fifth track choice, Debussy’s “La Mer,” received a mixed reception at its 1905 premiere, it later became one of his most admired and performed works for orchestra.
Debussy wrote “La Mer” with the enormous power of the sea in mind. And indeed, this is a tour de force of melodic fury.
Debussy’s Most Romantic Composition
Another of Debussy’s beloved and enchanting compositions often heard in film and television, is my sixth selection. The lovely “Clair de Lune” (1890).
By the way, the above link for “Clair de Lune” is from a 1913 piano roll with Debussy himself playing the piano!)
Similarly, Debussy’s friend Ravel composed a body of work we still here in films and television around the world today.
Reveling in Ravel
Music historians consider Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) to have been the greatest living composer in France during the 1920s and 1930s.
Ravel’s popularity was probably a result of his adherence to the same Impressionist aesthetic we treasure in the works of Manet, Pizarro, and Cezanne.
Ravel’s Most Famous Work for Orchestra
Ravel is known by many for his universally acclaimed “Bolero”. But Ravel delighted music lovers with many other musical compositions, such as my seventh selection, Ravel’s complex orchestral work “Daphnis et Chloe” (1912).
This passionate suite shows how Ravel embraced Impressionism. (Though Ravel himself would be loath to admit it).
Ravel’s Most Hypnotic Musical Foray
Our eighth musical selection is another popular Ravel composition that also conveys an early aspect of Musical Impressionism. It is Ravel’s very first orchestral rhapsody, Rapsodie Espagnole (1907-1908).
This musical magic carpet ride has beautifully layered textures.
The Japanese Influence on The Music of Impressionism
Music popular in Japan at the time influenced both Ravel and Debussy.
You can hear reflections of this in my ninth choice, Ravel’s Ma Mere l’Oye (Mother Goose, 1910.)
As well as in the tenth selection, Debussy’s Estampes No. 1 Pagodes.
The Japanese style used musical scales and various modes that intrigued these European composers.
Give The Music of Impressionism A Try
All things considered, art is in the eye of the beholder. It’s also in the ear of the beholder.
Whether or not you like classical music, this is beauty in melody.
Give Impressionist Music a try. Then spread the word.
My eleventh and twelfth picks, “Reverie” by Debussy and “Pavane Pour Une Infante Defunte” by Ravel, are personal favorites and an excellent place to start.
After that, if you want to buy an album, maybe pick one that features both of these innovative composers:
Help yourself to this one hundred-and-two-track epic, “Debussy & Ravel: Orchestral Works by Jean Martinon” or “Ravel: Boléro & Debussy: La Mer by Berlin Philharmonic & Herbert von Karajan.”
We are talking food for the soul here, people.
About the author. In addition to being a freelance writer, Gino Cirignano is also “The Computer Tutor,” offering one-to-one computer training at www.thecomputertutors.net.
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Denise McCanles says
I didn’t think I had a connection to this subject but you made it so interesting it broadened my horizons. That’s a gift!
Gino Cirignano says
I’m happy you found that connection, Denise! Thank you for the kind words. As far as I’m concerned, Impressionist Music never fails to impress in creating a world of musical possibilities.
Melissa Brauen says
This is so cool – to add ambiance and context to the time period of the artworks – which we usually see in isolation from its era.
The Charmed Studio says
That’s true Melissa, they are usually so isolated. Hurray Gino!
Makes me wonder who Dali was listening to as he painted. I know musician Nell Shaw Cohen researched the music O’Keeffe collected and listened to while painting. Here’s what she says:”Above all, O’Keeffe collected music of the 18th and 19th centuries – Beethoven, Schumann, Haydn, Bach, etc, and surprisingly to me, a quantity of Monteverdi madrigals, sacred music and operas (including multiple recordings of the opera “The Coronation of Poppea”) – which were relatively obscure at the time she was listening – as well as Verdi and Wagner operas.” I know O’Keeffe would occasionally listen to Edith Piaf as well.
Do you listen to music as you paint your beautiful work Melissa? And if you do, what kind?
Melissa Brauen says
I have an eclectic range of musical tastes, which was influenced by growing up in a household of hundreds of albums in may genres from several decades. It goes according to my mood. I can do dance ‘ hip hip, world, celtic, 70’s rock, or classical in any given week lol! But here is the thing – I MUST have it in my life daily and especially in my studio.
The Charmed Studio says
Wonderful. I need to include more music in my day. I love 60’s and 70’s rock. I Used to live in Laurel Canyon in the early 2000’s , near where Joni Mitchell and those guys lived back when that neighborhood was a fairy ring of talent and creativity for creatives. Faint magic glimmering there. Very faint.
Thank you for this excellent post. Daphnis et Chloe is my favorite piece by Ravel ! I was transfixed by it for the entire length of the piece once when I was listening to it with my father in his car… Yellow leaves of Autumn were falling onto the rainy windshield and being plastered there, as if transfixed by Ravel themselves.
Gino Cirignano says
Thanks for the feedback, Kathy. That sounds like a day to remember with your father. It certainly made an impression on you. “Daphnis et Chloe” is a wonderful suite. Ravel creates an atmosphere and mood left to each of our own interpretations. May I suggest Debussy’s “La Mer” as a companion piece, which is another orchestral masterpiece.
The Charmed Studio says
I love your comment because now I am seeing these music-loving leaves searching for Ravel…