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Music History - The Impressionistic Period

As the nineteenth century drew to a close, the fine arts entered a new era: called "Impressionism", it lasted only a few decades into the twentieth century. French artists such as Monet, Manet, Renoir and Degas first applied the term, "Impressionism", to paintings. Around 1870, a group of young artists abandoned the accepted school of realism in favor of a new movement in painting, which was dedicated to ideals considered revolutionary by their contemporaries. These artists maintained that for their purposes, realism played now part in achieving an artistic result. They concentrated on the "manner" in which a picture was painted, and were completely unconcerned with subject matter. Their chief aim was to reproduce the general "impression" of the moment made by the subject on the artist. They tended to look at nature with an "innocent eye", seeing the world in a continual state of change with its outlines melting into haze. They would contrast bits of pure color on the canvas, leaving it to the eye of the beholder to do the mixing. Impressionist painters were repelled by the heroic themes of the Romantic painters. The hero of the Impressionist was not man, but light. They chose as subjects dancing girls (ballerinas), picnics, boating, cafe scenes and nature. Their art is the reflection and impression of a magical city: Paris.

In literature (especially poetry), Impressionism was translated into a movement called "Symbolism". The Symbolists wished to free-verse techniques to achieve fluidity. Poetry's new function was to suggest or evoke, but not to describe. Rejecting realism, these poets chose to express their immediate reactions to a subject by means of symbolic words, which were arranged for their emotional values.

The basic theories of the Impressionists were most wonderfully expressed in the sonorous art of music. Since music is essentially an abstract art, it was ideal in projecting Impressionism's vague images. The Impressionist composers had two favorite mediums: the orchestra (because of its variety of color) and the piano (because its damper pedal permitted vibrating harmonies to "suspend in mid-air"). The Impressionist painters, as we have seen, tried to capture the movement of color and light. Music is predominantly the art of abstract movement. For this reason, the favorite images of the Impressionist painting -- the play of light on water, clouds, gardens in he rain, sunlight through the leaves -- lent themselves readily to musical expression. Such descriptive titles as "Reflections on the Water", "The Snow is Dancing", "Sounds and perfumes Swirl in the Evening Air", reveal composers as poets and painters in addition to being musicians.

Visual Arts: Manet, Degas, Renoir, Pissaro, Monet, Rodin, Seurat, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gaugin, Homer.

Literature: Baudelaire, Mallarme, Verlaine, Rimbaud.

Prominent Composers: Debussy, Ravel, Delius, Griffes, Respighi, Szymanowski, Satie, Faure.

Prominent Musical Characteristics:

  • Modal Influences: The medieval modes were attractive to composers who sought to escape the "tyranny" of the major/minor sound. Emphasized were primary intervals -- octaves, fourths, and fifths -- in parallel motion. This resembled a medieval procedure known as "organum", where a melody was harmonized by another which ran parallel to it at a distance of a fourth or fifth.

  • Whole-Tone Scale: Claude Debussy heard the musicians of the Far East (Java, Bali, and Indo-China). He was fascinated by the music of the native orchestra, the gamelan, with percussive rhythms and bewitching instrumental colors. The music of the Far East makes use of certain scales, which divide the octave into equal major/minor system and leads to obscured fluidity.

  • Pentatonic Scale: The pentatonic (five-note) scale is sounded when the black yes of the piano are struck (or also C, D, F, G and A). This scale is popularly associated with Chinese music, but is even more familiar to us through Scottish, Irish and English folk tunes ("Auld Lang Syne" and "Comin' Through the Rye").

  • Impressionist Harmony: Impressionist composers regarded the chord as an entity by itself, a "thrill" that hit the ear with a style all its own. Impressionism released the chord from its function as harmony to movement within the melody.

  • Parallel Motion: In Classicism, tension was produced by moving voices in a contrary fashion. Impressionism, on the other hand, vied chords as melodic entities. This, it was "proper to move voices in a parallel fashion (this was "forbidden" in the Classical era).

  • Escaped Chords: These were harmonies which gave the impression of having "escaped" to another tonality. Such chords are neither prepared for, nor are they resolved in any traditional sense. They simply "evaporate".

Other Musical Characteristics: There was little room in Impressionism for the "heaven-storming" climaxes of Romanticism. Instead, there is a veiling of sonority and delicate texture. Impressionism is "opalescent" and "transparent", shimmering from time to time with showers of sound. Within the orchestra, flutes and clarinets are used in their dark lower registers. Violins reach for upper sonorities while trumpets and horns are muted. There is much use of the harp, celeste, triangle, glockenspiel and cymbal (usually brushed with a drumstick). Phrases tend to be fragmentary and speckled with color. Rhythm tends to be vague and free, with cadences being not so clearly defined. Also, phrases tend to overlap and are fluid in character.

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