French Impressionism may well be the most popular artistic style in the world. Even people who know little of art delight in the way painters like Monet and Renoir depicted everyday life and the play of light in shimmering colors. Impressionist music, on the other hand, occupies murkier territory. If we are to believe the textbooks, the style is represented by only two composers—Claude Debussy (1862-1918) and Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)—both of whom disliked the label “Impressionist.” And besides, Ravel’s clear-cut rhythms and strong sense of form seem at odds with the style. As a term borrowed from pictorial art, Impressionism has never fit music quite like a glove.
Despite this, most experienced listeners know Impressionism when they hear it. This is above all music of atmosphere. It avoids standard harmonic progressions and traditional musical form, instead evoking ephemeral sensations through harmony and timbre. Many Impressionist pieces bear descriptive titles indicating an intent to paint pictures in sound—e.g., Debussy’s Claire de lune and La cathédrale engloutie (The Sunken Cathedral), and Ravel’s Miroirs and Jeux d’eau (Play of Water). Even where no descriptive program is present, lush colors usually are. Characteristic techniques include the use of “exotic” (non-Western) scales such as the whole-tone, and shifting chord progressions for a sensuous effect.
Debussy offered his style as an antidote to the bombast and overstatement of much German Romantic music, especially Wagner. Yet as time passed Impressionism came to seem more like the sunset of Romanticism than the harbinger of anything new. Jean Cocteau famously summed up the dissonant turn that music took after Debussy: “After music with the silk brush, music with the ax.”
Yet the techniques of Impressionism passed into the bloodstream of 20th-century music. Igor Stravinsky’s three Russian ballets (culminating in The Rite of Spring) could be considered an extension of Impressionism, and the style became a tool in the arsenal of countless Hollywood film composers. No twentieth-century composer was uninfluenced by Debussy’s innovations in harmony and tone color.
So is there a canon of Impressionist music beyond Debussy and Ravel? The question has intrigued me for some time, and I determined to find an answer. Most music histories speak of Debussy as the only full-fledged Impressionist, yet many composers active at the turn of the century participated in the style. The popular symphonic poems of Ottorino Respighi, Manuel de Falla, Frederick Delius, Ralph Vaughan Williams all share Impressionist traits. These composers’ music is well known and their debt to Impressionism readily acknowledged.
What is not so well known is that Impressionist music had a strong influence on Americans (as did Impressionist painting—think of Mary Cassatt and John Singer Sargent). Many of these American composers went directly to Paris to study the style. There were other French composers, too, who wrote excellent music using the techniques of Debussy and Ravel while being largely overshadowed by those giants. It is these lesser-known composers and works that I wish to highlight here, with the caveat that my list is only a starting point. Call this list “Impressionism: Off the Beaten Track.”
Albert Roussel (1869-1937): Symphony No. 1, Le Poème de la Forêt
Roussel, a midshipman in the French navy before taking up a musical career, passed through every French musical trend of his day, from late Romanticism to Neoclassicism. In between came an Impressionist phase, illustrated magnificently by the First Symphony of 1918. It is a lush four-movement tone poem describing a forest in the changing seasons. Think of it as the musical analogue to Monet’s paintings of Rouen Cathedral.
Guy Ropartz (1864-1955): Violin Sonata No. 2 in E major (1918)
Ropartz hailed, proudly, from Brittany in northern France and drew inspiration from that region’s folk music. His works are consistently well-crafted and appealing, combining late Romantic and Impressionist elements. The Second Violin Sonata is a particularly beautiful piece which deserves to be heard as often as Ravel’s.
Germaine Tailleferre (1892-1983) Piano Trio (1917)
Tailleferre was early associated with Les Six, the youthful group of French composers formed in the 1920s, but her composing career extended over sixty years. Typical of her style, the early Piano Trio offers a refreshing blend of Impressionism and neoclassicism.
Lili Boulanger (1893-1918): D’un matin de Printemps; D’un Soir Triste (1918)
Lili was the younger sister of the legendary pedagogue Nadia Boulanger, who taught legions of 20th-century composers. Despite her death from Crohn’s disease at the tragically young age of 24, she left behind a sizable legacy of music. This exquisite pair of contrasting tone poems “of a spring morning” and “of a sad evening” are among the last music she wrote.
Charles Martin Loeffler (1861-1935): Music for Four Stringed Instruments (1918)
Loeffler imported French Impressionism to America in a style marked by a refined aestheticism. Born in Germany, an immigrant to Boston at age 20, he played violin in the Boston Symphony for many years before retiring to compose full-time.
Music for Four Stringed Instruments is Loeffler’s eloquent memorial for a friend who was the first fallen aviator of World War I. Elegiac and ultimately transcendent, the work incorporates Gregorian chant melodies for Eastertide.
Edward Burlingame Hill (1872-1960): Prelude for Orchestra (1953)
After pursuing studies in Paris, Hill brought French musical ideas back to America as a distinguished professor at Harvard. His student roster reads like a Who’s Who of American composers, but only recently have Hill’s own talents as a composer been rediscovered. The lush Prelude for Orchestra, recorded by Leonard Bernstein (one of Hill’s students), illustrates the magic of his Impressionistic style.
John Alden Carpenter (1876-1951): Adventures in a Perambulator (1914)
Listening to this charming suite by the Chicago-born Carpenter, it’s understandable why Walt Disney wanted to use it for a planned sequel to his animated classic Fantasia. With a detailed program by Carpenter himself, it is a description of life as seen from the point of view of an infant in a baby carriage (perambulator). The episodes depicted: En voiture, The Policeman, The Hurdy-Gurdy, The Lake, Dogs, and Dreams.
The above list is offered in the spirit of rediscovery. The failure and collapse of avant-garde modernism has caused many listeners to look back into the musical past, to dig into forgotten repertoire and neglected composers. Contributing to the adventure have been books like Robert Reilly’s Surprised by Joy: A Listener’s Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music. Excavating lost gems of Impressionism should be an honored part of this project. We will rediscover an often passed-over moment in the history of music, whose serenity and charm are a balm to an era in sore need of both.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image above is “Impression, soleil levant” (Impression, Sunrise) , by Claude Monet, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.