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CAPÍTULO 15 -- O IMPRESSIONISMO (1880 -- 1920)

The late Romantic Era found numerous schools of musical thought splitting off from the mainstream of the German movement. These included Expressionism, Nationalism, and a very important one, Impressionism. Like the Baroque era, it was a name meant as an insult by critics who disliked its hazy scenes and color schemes.

Not too far removed from the mainstream of Nationalism, Impressionism was primarily a French movement from around 1880 to 1920. The Impressionistic school of painting included Seurat, Monet, Manet, and Cezanne.

Musically, only two composers represent Impressionism--Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, and in Ravel's case, it was more of a casual association. Nevertheless, it represents an important bridge to the modern era.

Also called symbolistic, like many Romantic pieces, much Impressionistic music was program music. Instead of being based on on literature, its composers chose to concentrate on scenes of nature.

The first glimmerings of the style began as paintings. An unusual aspect of these paintings is that the images are unconcerned with lines, hard forms, and concrete shapes. Instead they involve the interplay of light on water or other objects. Rather than present an objective view of an image, they often give the artists's personal impression, hence the name Impressionism. While they don't necessarily show distinct shapes, they often give the impression of doing so. Many times you will see someone looking at an Impressionist painting up close and then stepping back to understand the painting as a whole.

In a very similar fashion, Impressionistic music often lack hard lines (melody) and distinct shapes (definite forms). Like its visual counterpart, the music often contains very exotic splashes of orchestral color and exotic rhythms. Debussy and Ravel were influenced by Eastern music, Spanish music, pentatonic and whole tone scales.

Also noteworthy among Debussy and Ravel's musical influences is jazz. Each developed a very powerful love for jazz music that was just starting to become known in Europe. Ravel even went so far to write music that could almost be mistaken for jazz in some parts.

Impressionistic music is often written in direct contrast to Romantic music in its emotional tone. If one were to compare these two movements with weather conditions, Romantic music would be a raging thunderstorm followed by the clouds breaking open and the light of heaven shining through. Impressionism would be a hot, hazy afternoon, perhaps clouds slowly moving across the sky, maybe soft moonlight. This is not to suggest that all Impressionistic music is slow and quiet--some of it is very loud and fast moving, but there is a greater tendency of its composers to concentrate on the more introspective aspects of nature, concerned with the infinite variety of subtle shadings.

Debussy imposed a lot of rules on the way he composed music. One of the reasons that Impressionism failed to catch on internationally was that if you used Debussy's rules, you tended to sound like Debussy--and each composer wishes to blaze his own trail through music.


CLAUDE DEBUSSY (1862 -- 1918)

Debussy is regarded as the father of Impressionistic music. While thoroughly skilled in the traditional way of writing music, Debussy began to break a lot of the old rules governing the way music is written. Many musical experiments were performed in the late 1800s and early 1900s, but of all of the movements that took off in their own directions, Debussy's is one of the few that are quite listenable. One of his devices is the use of dissonance as a stable structural sound ("structural dissonance") instead of something to be avoided or used as a weak point (not unlike the treatment in jazz).

Debussy was a highly skilled pianist who instinctively understood its potential as an instrument with many different colors and effects available. While he composed a lot of music, much of his orchestral music started off as piano music and was orchestrated by someone else.

Compared to Romanticism, much of his music almost seems minimalist.

RECOMMENDED COMPOSITIONS: La Mer; Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun; Three Nocturnes; Preludes for the Piano; The Children's Corner; Violin Sonata; Sacred and Profane Dances for Harp and String Orchestra; String Quartet in G minor.

MAURICE RAVEL (1875 -- 1937)

Maurice Ravel was another composer associated with Impressionism, and he was also a close friend of Debussy. Although he really wasn't an Impressionist in the same sense as Debussy, his music shares many of the same characteristics and both composers are usually linked together.

Ravel composed a moderate amount of music for solo piano, much orhestral music, chamber music, and several ballets. He was the most skilled orchestrator of his time, showing masterly control over the many tone colors of an orchestra.

One of his ballets was based on a Spanish dance rhythm called a bolero. It consists of fifteen minutes of doing little but repeating the same melody (and a slight variation) over and over, only getting louder and adding more instruments. This sounds as if it should have bombed badly, but to Ravel's chagrin (the composer himself didn't think much of the piece), he found that it quickly became his most popular piece of music. Decades later when it was used in the movie "10", record stores couldn't keep recordings of it in stock, it sold so quickly.

He also composed two piano concertos, one of them for Paul Wittgenstein, a pianist who had his right arm amputated during World War I. Performed with the left hand only, it is so well written that it is nearly impossible to tell that musicians are using only one hand!

RECOMMENDED COMPOSITIONS: Bolero; Rhapsodie Espagnol; Two Piano Concerti; Mother Goose; Daphnis and Chloe; Le Tombeau de Couperin and Gaspard de la Nuit for piano.


In many ways, Impressionism represents a very curious break from the previous style of painting. Not long afterwards, abstract art also began to be painted. Why? Why should images, lines, shapes, and accuracy in general be forfeit in favor of the indefinite, the suggestion, the unrecognizable?

To answer that, a painter of the time might say "Why bother with realistic images? There's this new technology called 'photography' that can do it much better than I can! Also much quicker, and much less expensive. Why should I bother competing?"

While the first photographic images were taken around the year 1840, it took a while for the practice to become a little more refined, and less expensive, but when it happened, it sparked a revolution in how people dealt with images as communication. A fire or natural disaster would be mass-reproduced by way of a woodcut or drawing of some sort--subject to the whims and skills of the artist. But a photograph. . . that was the actual image.

Did the painters then close up shop and decide that they would be the last practitioners of their art?

We can obviously see that that didn't happen. Painters may have said, "Why should I bother competing? I can't--but what I can do is paint images that the camera simply cannot capture. . ."

There are many lighting effects that cannot be captured by the cold mechanical accuracy of a camera. Distortions, stylized designs, suggestions of movement, the artist's feelings of a scene--these were all things beyond the scope of an object casting a shadow on film.

Within a few decades of this era we began to see not only the type of creativity and vision found in Impressionism but also the rise of "abstract art".

So--this mechanical process of capturing an image changed the face of visual art forever. We can see fairly clearly the before and after effects of the storage and mass production of a scene, a face, or an event.

What if something like that were to happen with sound? Could it change the way we think of and deal with sound as radically as it affected the visual element?

It did.

Welcome to a new era. . . if there is anything that distinguishes the twentieth century from all previous eras, it is our communications. Our electronic/storage mediums have changed the role that music plays in our lives--as well as our understanding of ourselves and our environment.

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