The Impressionist Period  (1890-1910)

Impressionism was already present in art by the time composers embraced the style.  It is the shortest of the musical periods. In 1867, Monet produced a painting called “Impression: Sun Rising.” The term was derisive at first. The Impressionist artist or composer attempted to provide a fleeting glimpse of the subject, the freshness of a first impression. They were fascinated by the continuous change in the appearance of things. Many of the paintings are foggy or blurry, although some are bright. The Impressionists abandoned the grandiose subjects of Romanticism. Impressionism in poetry took place in the works of the symbolist poets. These authors included Baudelaire, Mallarme, Verlaine, and Rimbaud. These poets were influenced by Edgar Allan Poe.

Claude Debussy (1862-1918)

Debussy is the most significant composer of the Impressionists. He entered the Conservatoire at age 10, and remained there for 11 years.  Debussy offended many of his teachers with his experimental ideas about harmony and dissonance.  Debussy and other Impressionists used planing (parallelism) in their music. Some of Debussy’s music lacked a tonal center.  Debussy used the pentatonic and whole tone scales..  Surprisingly, Debussy was not greatly influenced by jazz. Debussy did not like the term “Impressionism” applied to his music.

Debussy had a difficult personality.  He had a stormy marriage than ended in divorce and then remarried a few years later. He had one daughter, Claude-Emma, nicknamed Chou Chou. She was talented, but died of diphtheria at age 16.  Debussy composed Children’s Corner for Chou Chou.  He wrote the titles in English as a sign of respect for Chou Chou’s nanny, who was an Englishwoman.

Debussy won the Prix de Rome in 1884 with the composition, “L’Enfant prodigue.” This prize allowed Debussy to study in Rome. Most of the composers treated the years in Rome like a jail sentence. Debussy was no different and returned to Paris rather than spend the entire three years.

Debussy attended the Paris Exposition in 1889, where he heard a Javanese gamelan orchestra. He was so impressed that he began incorporating pentatonic scales in his work. Debussy also incorporated modes in his work. He incorporated the Moorish strain in Spanish music, and was inflluenced by the music of Borodin, Mussorgsky, and Grieg. He had been piano teacher to the children of Nadezhda von Meck in Russia. Meck had been Tchaikovsky’s benefactor. From Russia, Debussy brought back ideas and theory of Russian folk music, and some of his works utilize the octonic scale. This scale is made up of alternating half and whole steps. It is referred to as a symmetrical scale because it occurs in only three forms. The scale outlines the diminished chord, giving it an unusual sound.

Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” (1894) has been considered the first 20th Century piece of music. It set the musical world on its ear. Debussy said that this was  was music simply for the pleasure of the sound. It used the theme of mythical nature, but was much more sensuous than anything that had come before. For this reason, critics had some trouble with it, but audiences loved it. In his discussion of the Prelude, he stated that he wrote it only for the sonic beauty.

In Debussy’s second style period, his music became more neo-Classical. His harmonies became more dissonant, and Debussy began to incorporate generic names into the titles of his composition. In fact, Debussy renounced his early style. Debussy died of colon cancer during the bombardment of Paris in 1918.

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)

Ravel was born in the Basque region in France. His mother was Basque, and his father was Swiss. His father was a clockmaker and a significant inventor, and his meticulous nature rubbed off on his son. Ravel was impressed by the works of Rimsky-Korsakov.

Ravel entered the Conservatoire as a child and remained there until 1893. Ravel competed for the Prix de Rome three times, but never won. There was scandal around the third attempt, because all of the finalists were the students of one teacher, who was connected to the Conservatoire. This scandal was called the “Ravel Affair.” Ravel’s and Debussy’s music have a similar sound and similar subject matter.

Because of superficial similarities, Ravel was accused of plagiarizing Debussy. A scandal broke out, and this caused a bit of rift in the friendship between Ravel and Debussy. In his usual sarcastic manner, Debussy pointed out the notable differences in their music. Some of the titles of pieces were similar, some of the techniques were similar, but Ravel employed classical forms throughout his music.

Ravel was a neo-Classicist. He used old forms like the sonatina, and also used old French dance forms. Debussy did not use these forms. Instead, Debussy would present his thematic material, transform the themes, and use repetition. Ravel used jazz elements. Debussy did not. Both composers used modal elements, but both reverted mostly to Major/minor. Ravel is less partial to the whole-tone scale than Debussy, and much more tonally-centered.

Ravel was an excellent orchestrator. He had studied the orchestration book by Rimsky-Korsakov and combined the concepts in that book with his own tonal imagination to produce some of the finest orchestral works. His arrangement of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” is frequently performed today. Ravel’s most famous piece is “Bolero.” It was originally commissioned by Ida Rubenstein, a dance choreographer. It is a large, one-movement work that organizes two themes into a continuous crescendo with no change of key, no real form. Ravel composed it as an experiment. In it, Ravel uses an unusual array of instrument combinations to produce variety and interest.

Ravel composed a Concerto for the Left Hand (1931) for the pianist Paul Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein had lost his arm in the war, and commissioned several composers to write works for him. Often he was not satisfied with the works. The Ravel concerto remains in the standard repertoire today.

Ravel had been an ambulance driver during WW I. In Le Tombeau de Couperin, Ravel uses French Baroque forms as a tribute to the music of France. Each of the pieces is dedicated to the memory of a fallen soldier from the war. As in many of Ravel’s pieces, there are piano solo and orchestral versions. Ravel is a successful composer, and sought after as a personality. He owned a beautiful estate called Belvedere. He loved entertaining, never married, and it is believed he may have been a homosexual.

Ravel was in a taxi accident and suffered a fatal brain injury.