The Periods of Classical Music Part 4: Impressionist

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Welcome to the final part of our four-part series – the eras of Classical music. First we covered the Baroque Era with its beautiful counterpoint and ornamentation. Then we moved on to the Classical Era with its wonderful structure. Last time we covered the Romantic Era and its freedom of expression and larger orchestration.

So what separates impressionist music from the other eras? If you’ve ever seen any of the impressionist artwork – such as Monet – you immediately notice the creative use of colors, dots, blurs and other techniques that form these dream-like images that often have a sense of motion to them. This amazing effect is recreated in the music of the era as well.

A lot of the great Impressionist composers (Debussy, Ravel, Fauré, Messiaen, etc.) were from France – which is really the epicenter of Impressionism. There is a real beauty and complexity to the music of this era that almost conjures up images in the mind with its textures.

In the video provided with this article, I perform some of the different movements in the Children’s Corner Suite of Debussy. It’s remarkable to hear the complexity and depth of sound in each movement – the variety of compositional techniques is awe inspiring. Each of the movements evokes completely different images and thoughts in the listener. But how is this possible? It’s the writing.

If you look at the scores of Impressionist piano music you will notice that some of them even have three different staves to fit all the notes in! Hands are divided in creative ways, the middle pedal is used extensively to hold notes you can’t hold with just two hands. There is a great level of complexity and depth to this music that goes beyond Romantic era music. Impressionist music also has different tonalities and modes. It’s not just major and minor – there are whole tone scales that cover different clusters of sounds as well as a great variety of modes. All of these amazing sounds which color the music are attributes of Impressionist music.

Thanks so much for joining me on this four-part series of the Periods of Classical Music. I’m Robert Estrin (949) 244-3729