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Images - Ibéria

Related Artists/Companies

Claude Debussy

Upcoming Performances

Image from National Symphony Orchestra: Christoph Eschenbach, conductor: Four French Composers Inspired by Spain National Symphony Orchestra: Christoph Eschenbach, conductor: Four French Composers Inspired by Spain - Mar. 12 - 14, 2015
Iberian culture's impact on France is explored through Ravel's Boléro, Chabrier's España, Debussy's Ibéria, and Lalo's Symphonie espagnole featuring violinist Leticia Moreno's NSO debut.

Past Performances

Image from National Symphony Orchestra: Hans Graf, conductor/Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano, plays Connesson & Ravel National Symphony Orchestra: Hans Graf, conductor/Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano, plays Connesson & Ravel - Apr. 29 - May 1, 2010

About the Work

Claude Debussy
Quick Look Composer: Claude Debussy
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Hans Graf, conductor/Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano, plays Connesson & Ravel Apr. 29 - May 1, 2010
© Thomas May
Claude Debussy
Born August 22, 1862, St. Germain-en-Laye
Died March 25, 1918, Paris

"More and more I feel that music, by its very essence, is not something that can flow into a rigorous, traditional form," wrote Claude Debussy (1862-1918) in a famous letter while the Images were still gestating. "Rather, it is a thing of colors and rhythmicized time." Aside from some late-period ballet/theater pieces, the Images are his final compositions for large orchestra. They represent Debussy's evolving mastery of the revolutionary musical language through which he opened the door to a new century of innovation.

Curiously, Debussy found an important source of inspiration by reimagining the music of foreign lands. At the International Paris Exposition in 1889, for example, he encountered Asian music in the form of the Javanese gamelan ensemble. Its shimmering, percussive colors left a lasting impression that would influence Debussy's sensitivity to texture. Similarly, Spanish idioms inspired some of his most animated music, from such pieces for solo piano as "Night in Granada" (from Estampes) to Ibéria, the longest of the three orchestral Images and the first to be completed.

However persuasively these compositions convey a sense of place or musical "terroir," Debussy actually made just one brief visit across the border to Spain's Basque country—a trip that took in a bullfight and lasted less than a day. What engaged his imagination wasn't a desire to portray particular Spanish scenes, like so many musical postcards, but rather the composer's subjective articulation of Spanish associations. The pictorialism of the Images, Debussy remarked, reflects his attempt "to write 'something else'—realities, in a manner of speaking—what imbeciles call 'impressionism.'"

Along with the Spanish "realities" of Ibéria, Debussy initially planned to present complementary portraits of France (Rondes de printemps) and England (Gigues) in the other two Images. He also envisioned writing the score for just two pianos, as a follow-up to the first book of Images for solo piano. But the entire project, which began in 1905, stretched out for years and significantly changed course. Debussy did compose another book of keyboard Images (also for solo piano) but decided to replace the duo-piano idea with a large-scale orchestra. Meanwhile, the flanking sections—which were completed after Ibéria—grew more abstract, containing only indirect references to the other two countries.

Like each of the two books of Images for solo piano, the orchestral Images form a triptych. That, at least, is the way Debussy eventually published them (as Images pour orchestre), though each was premiered separately. Ibéria (which is itself comprised of three movements) went on to become far more popular than its companions and tends to be programmed as a stand-alone piece, while performances of the entire set remain infrequent.

Rondes de printemps evokes a complex, multi-faceted atmosphere by distilling simple materials: in this case, fragments of French nursery song and dance rhythms. Refracted through ultra-refined harmonies and tone colors, Debussy weaves these into fleeting recollections of innocence and joy to suggest the burgeoning hope of spring—a pastorale of the psyche. (One of these childhood tunes—"Nous n'irons plus au bois"—was a particular favorite of the composer and appears in some of his other compositions as well.)

As a preface to his score, Debussy inscribes a poetic paean to the arrival of May "with its rustic banner." Motifs move in and out of slow focus, first in a slow introductory section and then as the pace grows more exuberant. Debussy's spring rhythms and scenery—"rhythmicized time" indeed—make a fascinating contrast with the raw, elemental power of Stravinsky's (nearly contemporaneous) Rite of Spring.

Gigues was completed after the other two Images (in 1912). Some scholars believe that André Caplet—a close friend and assistant—may have been entrusted with its orchestration, as was the case for some of Debussy's final works. Yet the subtle interplay of orchestral weights and colors, of foreground and background, is so characteristically Debussyan that Caplet must have consulted closely with the composer if he did have a hand.

Gigues makes oblique reference to England through its use of the old Northumbrian folk-tune "The Keel Row." (One biographer further suggests that the piece's wistfulness—Debussy initially called it Gigues tristes or "sad jigs"—echoes the mood of a poem Verlaine wrote in London.) But Debussy does something far more ingenious than merely quoting the tune for local color. He fragments and filters its naively happy sentiments. First we hear it in slow motion, adrift against a mysterious sheen of whole-tone harmonies, and then speeded up as a rudely mocking dance of dotted rhythms played by bassoons. Between the two versions comes a plaintive counter-melody on the oboe d'amore (the instrument's uniquely dusky tone is a perfect vehicle for its air of bittersweet recollection). Gigues juxtaposes these contrasting elements in a rich, exquisitely crafted montage that reaches fever pitch before dissolving again into the elusive atmosphere of the opening.

The three panels of Ibéria evoke the sensations of a Spanish village at different times of the day, in light and shade. The first—"Par les rues et par les chemins—begins with the afternoon's bustle and heat. Chords snap and castanets clack to underline the movement's energetic rhythmic pattern, while clarinets, like improvising street musicians, entertain with a sinuous tune (its ending phrase strikingly anticipates the melody of Ravel's Boléro). Viola and oboe play at our heartstrings with their soulful slant on the tune. Fanfares from horns and trumpets announce the passing of some important personage. Debussy pulls us into a narrow lane for a new perspective from which to observe the passing march. As the oboes take up the clarinets' opening melody, the crowd seems to press even more closely until the music fades to a magically quiet close.

Debussy seems intent on appealing to all our senses through this music. The middle movement—"Les parfums de la nuit"—is a nocturne, "slow and dreamy" and among his most complexly sensuous. This is a textbook example of Debussy's incomparable alchemy in the handling of orchestral color. Bartók learned much from Debussy for his own famous evocations of "night music." The oboe's melody, delicately wafted against harmonies from divided strings and hallucinatory celesta, yields to shifting densities of sound, while distant recollections of the day grow in passion and then subside. But a new day is about to dawn; soft bells hint its approach before another dream-fragment of the preceding day is once more recalled.

One of the most brilliant passages in Ibéria—indeed in all Debussy—occurs in the subliminal transition directly into the final movement. The beginning of "Le matin d'un jour de fête" dispels the languorous dream state: Bells now ring out and are transformed into a catchy motto of march rhythms (Debussy uses the strings to mimic a giant guitar). A sense of both "people and nature waking," as the composer put it, gathers momentum, while individual voices invite us to stop and admire them as we follow the procession. The excitement crests into a state of all-out abandon—our parting glimpse of the town's shared celebration.