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Images - Ibéria

About the Work

Claude Debussy
Quick Look Composer: Claude Debussy
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Christoph Eschenbach, conductor: Four French Composers Inspired by Spain Mar. 12 - 14, 2015
© Thomas May

Claude Debussy (1862-1918) found an important source of inspiration in 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. Debussy came to know Spanish music from popular sources as well as from Spanish composers like Albéniz and Falla who sojourned in Paris (and who were featured on the opening NSO programs of IBERIAN SUITE). As it happened, Debussy's own Spanish travels occurred almost entirely in his imagination-he made just one brief visit across the border to Spain-but the idea of Spain prompted an abundant range of musical responses, from the piano suite Estampes to Ibéria for full orchestra.

Several of Debussy's most important compositions are organized as triptychs, including La Mer's three "symphonic sketches" of the sea, Nocturnes, and Images. Ibéria, the middle panel within the orchestral Images, is itself further divided into three movements. Originally envisioned as a piece for two pianos, it was the starting point for Images and was also the first part of the triptych to be heard in its orchestral guise. The most popular of the Images, Ibéria, lasts longer than its companion pieces combined and-as on our program-is often performed independently.

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 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 followup 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 duopiano 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.

In his book Debussy: The Quiet Revolutionary, Victor Lederer discusses "Debussy's astounding ventures into the musical expression of perception," which, he says, foreshadow some of the techniques later to emerge in cinema. Like Monet's series of paintings depicting the façade of Rouen's Cathedral at different times of the day, Debussy creates tableaux of a Spanish village at contrasting moments. The first ("In the Streets and Byways") begins with the bustle and heat of an afternoon: energetic rhythms and the local color of clacking castanets set the music in motion. Evoking street musicians, the clarinets entertain with a sinuous tune that has a spirit of improvisation; its ending phrase a striking anticipation of the melody of Ravel's Boléro. Fanfares from horns and then trumpets announce the passing of some important personage. Debussy pulls us into a lane for a quieter perspective on the scene. As the oboes take up the clarinets' opening melody, the crowd seems to press even more closely until the music magically fades to a quiet close.

Debussy seems intent on reaching all our senses through this music. The middle movement-"The Fragrances of the Night"-is a nocturne, "slow and dreamy" and sensuously veiled, like his earlier Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. This is a textbook example of Debussy's extraordinary manipulation of orchestral color: from the delicately wafted oboe's melody, divided strings, and hallucinatory celesta to the shifting densities of sound that indicate distant recollections of the day. Toward the end, soft bells hint at the return of day, leading without pause into the final movement.

"The Morning of a Festival Day" dispels the languorous dream state of the preceding as the bells now ring out. Debussy transforms the whole string section into a joyful guitar for this festival day. Their intensely rhythmic theme provides a marching background for the procession of colorful solo episodes. With a final surge, Debussy gives us a parting snapshot of the town's shared celebration.