Impressionism in music history began in France where glittering splashes of color, whole tone, pentatonic and modal scales were used to create a sensual experience. Here is an excellent performance of a piano piece by the France composer Maurice Ravel. His Sonatine is performed and explained by outstanding Israeli pianist Orli Shaham.

You came a long way from the Baroque to the Classic to the Romantic and now to the Impressionist era in the history of music (late nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth century).

No longer do you wear the powdered wig of the 17th and 18th century.

No longer is the music you play very symmetrical with a strong tonic–dominant relationship as it was for Mozart, Haydn and other composers of the Classic Era.

You now have a grand piano in your living room. It has three pedals instead of two. Some composers of this period of time use the middle pedal, called sostenuto pedal, for effect. This pedal is pressed by your left foot (damper remains raised until your foot comes off) when you want a note in the bass (a pedal tone) to ring out while the other notes you play do not.

Musicians in France created this style as their reaction to the excessive extremes of the Romantic Era. Ralph Vaughn Williams, a student of Maurice Ravel, brought Impressionism to his home in England where it spread to other composers and to other countries, even to the United States. Swiss born Ernest Bloch(1880-1959) used Walt Whitman’s Poems of the Sea, for his piano composition of the same name. There is much color and harmonic expression written into the music. The left hand interprets the waves rising and falling as the boat sails across calm and turbulent waters. We could almost feel the water wash up on to the boat splashing up to our faces as we listen to the first movement of three called Waves in this performance by pianist Harriette Serr.

Impressionism also seen in Monet and Renoir’s paintings, shows indistinct lines giving a misty effect rather than a crisp exact picture to the viewer. Everything is blurred into adjacent sections to show impressions of what you see or hear.

You are now listening to the music and learning to play pieces on your piano by such composers as Debussy, Ravel, and Faure.

Short pieces such as the Arabesque, Prelude and Nocturne are used rather than the long symphony and concerto forms of the Romantic Era. In addition to whole tone scales composers of this era also use pentatonic (5-tone scale with interval relationships the same as the black notes on the piano) and modal scales rather than all major and minor.

In the Impressionist pieces that you heard by Maurice Ravel and Ernest Bloch, think about the use of the whole tone scale (C,D,E,F#,G#,A#,C) or (C#,D#,F,G,A,B,C#) using whole steps which blur tonality and the augmented chords coming from this scale, that give us more harmonic dissonance. The color chords (7ths, 9ths,11ths) along with fast note passages and dynamic sound changes give us huge sensual splashes of color. Think of the music as a wash of sound. Then go to the piano and improvise your own Impressionist piece using the entire keyboard and the whole tone scale mentioned above. For assistance on how to do this please click on the Register Here page to begin your live online piano lessons.

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