Post-Romantic Music Before World War I

In some senses, the Romantic era in music never ended. Although many composers reacted against the Romantic esthetic, others continued to write such music throughout the 20th century. There was a pronounced backlash against these composers in academic music circles from mid-century for about thirty years; but various forms of "Neo-romanticism" have since restored the ideals of melody, traditional harmonies, emotional expression, and narrative among many younger composers. The result is that "contemporary" music by composers like Philip Glass and Arvo Pärt is often is often more appealing to a broad audience than earlier works by composers who claimed to be the authentic voice of the 20th century in stressing dissonance and fragmentation in their music. The late Washington State composer Alan Hovhaness benefitted from the turn toward Neo-romanticism simply by continuing to do what he had done for over seventy years: composing in a colorful expressive style. His works now enjoy a popularity they lacked during most of his long life. Another Washington contemporary composer of lovely works you might explore is Morton Lauridesen, who was born in Colfax!

However, this course ends its survey of music at 1914, on the eve of World War I. (Humanities 304, taught on the WSU campus in the spring, takes up the story from there.) There are only two selections on your Naxos CD set from this period, of which one is actually a Romantic work, so you will need to supplement your listening by borrowing an appropriate CD or set from the list below to do this assignment.

Disc 2

Track 14: Debussy: Suite bergamasque: Clair de lune

Claude Debussy (French 1862-1918) is usually considered the leading musical Impressionist. "Impressionism" is a problematic term in music. It was borrowed from art critics to describe the compositions of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel; but music historians today are very uncomfortable in using the label for Ravel's work at all and would consider only a small number of Debussy's compositions to belong to the category. Those who market music, however, still lump the two together under this label, so if you are shopping it is good to know how the term is commonly used.

There are some similarities between Impressionist painting and Impressionist music.

  • Impressionist art often tries to capture fleeting moments in which a certain kind of light transforms the objects it shines on. It is more about color and light than it is about the actual objects being painted and tends increasingly toward abstraction.
  • Impressionist music often lacks the sort of strong forward drive characteristic of earlier music. Time seems suspended. The sense of key is sometimes highly ambiguous, and there is a preference for whole-tone keys which cannot provide the sense of resolution traditional in Classical and Romantic music.

  • Impressionist artists deliberately rejected the large historical and mythical subjects for simple, everyday ones like horse races, ballet dancers, gardens in bloom, working people enjoying Sunday in the park. Their techniques rejected ornateness and polish for sponteneity and naturalness.
  • Impressionist composers specialized in small-scale works using smaller, simpler orchestras than their predecessors and simpler, more transparent textures.

  • Impressionist painters were powerfully influenced by Japanese prints.
  • Impressionist composers were influenced by Asian scales.

    There are many exceptions to these statements. The relationship of Impressionism to Romanticism is not entirely rebellious. For example, Debussy's only opera, Pelléas et Mélisande (1902), can be regarded as a reaction against the heavy, over-emphatic music of Wagner's operas; yet many modern scholars see a logical link between the two, and Debussy much admired the great Romantic. Many of the people who loved Debussy's opera when it was first performed were fervent Wagnerites, like the famous novelist Marcel Proust.

    Whatever the exact definition of Impressionism may be, one other comparison is clear: both artistic and musical Impressionism are very popular with a broad public.

    All that said, "Clair de lune" ("Moonlight") is not a particularly Impressionist piece. There are Romantic works with a similar feel, but its emphasis on delicacy is especially characteristic of Debussy. The melody is based on a popular folk song. Note how light the harmonies are, with no huge, crashing chords of the kind common in the music of Liszt, for instance. The rippling figures starting at about 1:45 are supposed to suggest the shining of moonlight on rippling water. Debussy was often inspired by art and artistic ideas.

    It is worth noting that there are many lesser composers often associated with musical Impressionism including Frederick Delius (England), John Tomlinson Griffes and Charles Martin Loeffler (U.S.). Some of the works by Italian composer Ottorino Respighi also have an Impressionist feel to them.


    Recommended recordings
    Musical Impressions

    Track 15: Elgar: Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1

    Edward Elgar (English, 1857-1934) is an example of the sort of composer who continued the Romantic tradition well into the 20th century. You have probably marched down an aisle at some time to collect a diploma to the familiar, majestic tune in the second section of this 1901 piece (starting at 2:00). You are less likely to have heard the spirited theme which surrounds it on either side, whose rhythm is much more dancelike. The title is borrowed from Shakespeare's Othello, as the protagonist bids farewell to all he has loved, including his military career:

    Farewell the neighing steed, and the shrill trump,
    The spirit-stirring drum, the ear-piercing fife,
    The royal banner, and all quality,
    Pride, pomp and circumstance of glorious war!
    (Act 3, scene 3, lines 351-354)
    Elgar's other most popular works are his Enigma Variations (1896) and his Violin Concerto (1910).


    Recommended recordings

    Because there is so little music in your CD set from this period, I am asking you to check out at least one recording from the list below (or listen to an equivalent recording you have obtained from elsewhere).

    First, click on the CDM number of the recording you are interested from the list below. This will connect you with its entry in Griffin, the WSU library catalogue. Look under "STATUS" to see whether or not the disc is checked out. If it says "ON SHELF," you're in luck; but if not, try another disc. Remember that when you are in Griffin, you can always get back to this page by clicking your "Back" button.

    If you have a slow connection, you can also try using Griffin via Telnet. Here are some instructions.

    Second, To check out CD's from Washington State University Media Materials Services, choose what you want below and then contact Extended Degree Library Services at 1-800-435-5832 or email The CD's will be mailed to you first class and must be returned within two weeks to avoid overdue fines. You can check out up to three discs or disc sets (multiple discs with the same CDM number together in a box); but please avoid checking out a lot from this list during the same period of time that everyone else will be working on it.

    Then read the liner notes that come with the CD and listen to the music. Your assignment is to describe one or two things that are described in the notes and that you can hear in the music. You need not use technical terms, and you must not copy the notes; just tell in your own words what you think you hear that the notes of have described. If the notes don't help you, try to describe some feature of the music that you can hear without their help. Then add your own personal reaction to the music. This assignment is to be 50-100 words long (longer if you wish).

    Various Composers

    CDM 1133 French Violin Sonatas: Debussy -- Violin sonata no. 1 in D minor / Saint-Saens -- Violin sonata / Ravel -- Violin sonata / Poulenc.
    CDM 1570 Great pianists of the 20th century: 40: Friedrich Gulda. I: Preludes, book I ; Preludes, book II ; L'isle joyeuse ; Images, book 1: Reflets dans l'eau ; Estampes: Soiree dans Grenade ; Suite bergamasque ; Pour le piano / Claude Debussy -- Sonatine ; Valses nobles et sentimentales ; Gaspard de la nuit / Maurice Ravel
    CDM 558 Debussy: Images; Rapsodie espagnole; Ravel: Alborada del gracioso

    Claude Debussy

    Orchestral works

    CDM 447 Complete Orchestral Works (2 discs)
    CDM 137 La mer; Nocturnes

    Piano works

    CDM 201 The Complete Works for Piano, vol. 3
    CDM 651 Preludes for Piano (2 discs, listen to the first one)
    CDM 103 Piano works: Estampes; Etude no. XI pour les arpèges composés; Suite bergamasque; Children's Corner; La fille aux cheveux de lin; L'isle joyeuse; La plus que lente
    CDM 1570 Great pianists of the 20th century: 40: Friedrich Gulda. I: Preludes, book I ; Preludes, book II ; L'isle joyeuse ; Images, book 1: Reflets dans l'eau ; Estampes: Soiree dans Grenade ; Suite bergamasque ; Pour le piano / Claude Debussy -- Sonatine ; Valses nobles et sentimentales ; Gaspard de la nuit / Maurice Ravel

    Vocal works

    CDM 782 The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian (Le martyre de saint Sébastien)
    CDM 1384 Pelléas et Mélisande

    Maurice Ravel

    CDM 685 Complete Works for Orchestra, Vol. 1: (2 discs; Piano concerto in G major, Rapsodie espagnole, Alborada del Gracioso, Bolero, Valses nobles et sentimentales, Menuet antique, Pavane pour une infante defunte, String quartet in F major)
    CDM 794 Orchestral Works (4 discs; Boléro Alborada del gracioso, Rapsodie espagnole, La valse, Ma mère l'Oye, Pavane pour une infante défunte, Le tombeau de Couperin, Valses nobles et sentimentales, Piano concerto in G major, Menuet antique, Piano concerto for the left hand, Une barque sur l'océan, Fanfare from L'Eventail de Jeanne, Daphnis et Chloé)
    CDM 294 Daphnis et Chloé
    CDM 1283 Ballets: Ma mère l'oye; Valses nobles et sentimentales; Boléro; Daphnis et Chloé Suite No. 1
    CDM 937 Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello (Trio pour piano, violon et violoncelle); Sonata for Violin and Cello; Sonata for Violin and Piano
    CDM 1210 Complete Music for Piano Solo; Complete Piano Concertos
    CDM 810 Piano Works, Vol. 2

    Vocal Work

    CDM 1343 L'enfant et les sortilèges

    Erik Satie

    CDM 198 3 Gymnopédies & Other Piano Works

    Igor Stravinsky

    CDM 78 The Firebird
    CDM 1087 The Firebird Suites 1 & 2
    CDM 946 Petrushka
    CDM 66 or CDM 652 The Rite of Spring

    Created by Paul Brians, June 26, 1998
    Last revised October 12, 2000

    This page has been accessed times since December 17, 1998.

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