Debussy: Images pour Orchestre

Images pour orchestre: Rondes de printemps, Ibéria, Gigues

Achille-Claude Debussy was born on August 22, 1862 at Saint Germain-en-Laye, Department of Seine-et-Oise, France, and died in Paris on March 25, 1918. He made the first plans for these Images in 1905. Ibéria, the central panel of this triptych, was the first of the three pieces actually to be composed, the orchestral draft score being finished on Christmas Day 1908, the full score reaching its final form the following year. The other two Images, Rondes de printemps and Gigues, were completed in 1909 and 1912, respectively. The orchestration of Gigues was carried out by the composer and conductor André Caplet according to detailed instructions given him by Debussy. The three works were introduced separately: Gabriel Pierné conducted the first performance of Ibéria with the Orchestre Colonne at the Châtelet Theater in Paris on February 20, 1910. Rondes de printemps was introduced a few days later, on March 2, at the Concerts Durand, with Debussy himself conducting. Gigues was not performed until 1913, when André Caplet conducted it at one of the Concerts Colonne on January 26 that year. The first US performances of Ibéria and Rondes de printemps were given by the New York Philharmonic under Gustav Mahler on January 3, 1911. Gigues was first played in America on November 13, 1914 with Frederick Stock conducting the Chicago Symphony. The complete Images were first played by the San Francisco Symphony in October 1986, with Erich Leinsdorf conducting; the most recent performances of the complete work were in May 2000, under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas. Gigues is scored for two piccolos and two flutes, two oboes, oboe d'amore, and English horn, three clarinets and bass clarinet, three bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, four trumpets, three trombones, timpani, cymbals, snare drum, xylophone, celesta, two harps, and strings. Ibéria omits the oboe d'amore and bass clarinet, but requires a third flute, tuba, tambourine, castanets, and three bells. Rondes de printemps drops the snare drum, bells, tambourine, and castanets from the Ibéria orchestra, but adds a tenor drum and a triangle. Performance time: about thirty-five minutes.

The year Debussy first planned the work that would eventually become the Images for orchestra, 1905, was also the year in which he completed La Mer,subtitled "three symphonic sketches," and in which he composed a set of three Images for piano. At that point he was not actually thinking about another orchestral work; rather, as he told Jacques Durand, his publisher, what he had in mind was to write a set of three Images for two pianos to be titled Gigues tristes,Ibéria, and Valses. Valses had a question mark attached, and in fact the waltz idea soon disappeared from his plan. He also decided that these new Images would be for orchestra.

On July 7, 1906, Debussy wrote to Durand that Iberia should be finished ''next week," with the other two pieces to follow by the end of the month. But to that prediction he had added a cautionary clause—"if an ironical fate doesn't come and jumble up my manuscripts." (All quotations from the composer's letters are drawn from Debussy Letters, selected and edited by François Lesure and Roger Nichols, translated by Roger Nichols, and published in 1987 by Harvard University Press.) As an experienced editor and a good friend of Debussy's, Durand undoubtedly read the subtext to that sentence, and indeed not just weeks went by, but months and years.

There were distractions. Some were personal: his djvorce from Lily Texier in 1905 and his liaison with Emma Bardac, who became the mother of their daughter Claude-Emma, called Chouchou, toward the end of that year, and who would become Madame Debussy in 1908. And in 1909 there appeared the first symptoms of the rectal cancer that would eventually kill him. Then there were musical plans that imperiously demanded his attention. The most ambitious of these, the never to-be-finished opera on Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher, first took his attention in 1908 and would occupy him until 19 l 7. But in the years between 1905 and 1912, when the Images were finally completed, Debussy also wrote the Children’s Corner Suite and both books of Preludes for piano, the Rhapsody for Clarinet and Orchestra, and his songs on poems of François Villon. The last interruption was Jeux, a prestigious and nicely paid commission from Diaghilev's Ballets Russes.

But the Images were also slow going because Debussy sensed he was writing a new kind of music and that he was feeling his way along previously unexplored paths. This music, Debussy wrote to Durand on September 3, 1907, "is peculiar in . . . that it's immaterial and one can't, therefore, handle it as though it were a robust symphony, walking on all four feet (sometimes three, but walking anyway)." And, a few months later: "I'm trying to write 'something else'—realities, in a manner of speaking- what imbeciles call 'impressionism,' a term employed with the utmost inaccuracy, especially by art critics, who use it as a label to stick on Turner, the finest creator of mystery in the whole of art!"

In a September 1907 letter to Durand, Debussy had written, "I feel more and more that music, by its very essence, is not something that can flow inside a rigorous, traditional form. It consists of colors and of rhythmicized time." It is a statement—or a program—that tells us much about the newness of Debussy's music. Pierre Boulez, one of Debussy's most illuminating interpreters both on the podium and in words, elaborated on this thought. Writing specifically about the middle movement of Ibéria,Boulez remarked: "I particularly admire Les Parfums de la nuit, one of Debussy's most inventive pieces, not so much for its thematic content as for the novel way in which he 'creates' the development, and makes the orchestral sound evolve, by the subtlety of the transitional passages. Even when themes reappear, the music never looks back: everything suggests a superior, polished kind of improvisation,so great is Debussy's control of his inventive skill and therefore his ability to do without any immediately recognizable formal framework."

It is probably not surprising that the Images did not immediately and unambiguously please. Indeed, Rondes de printemps and Gigues are still connoisseurs' pieces. Much of the first audience received Ibéria enthusiastically, and pierné was about to encore the finale when, as Léon Vallas writes in his biography of Debussy, "a hostile counter-demonstration broke out, with the result that the [movement] was not repeated." Some critics got the point of Ibéria, but others accused Debussy of writing desiccated "brain music" and of unsuccessfully trying to use "diversity and complexity of technical means [to] conceal pettiness, superficiality, and triviality of conception." More than once in his development Debussy found himself the victim of those who wished him to repeat himself rather than forge ahead into new territory. Even now, more than ninety-five years after his death, some of his most beautiful and exploring late music such as Jeux, the Études for Piano, and En Blanc et noir is only beginning to gain full acceptance.

Rondes de printemps
This Image has an epigraph, a French version of a couplet from an old Italian song, “La maggiolata”: Vive le Mai, bienvenu soit le Mai/Avec son gonfalon sauvage: "Cheers for May, welcome to May with its wild banner." I suspect sauvage sounds less "savage" to a French ear than it does to most of us; still, the wildness in this piece is palpable and at times quite startling. Rondes de printemps is also the only one of the Images to bear a dedication, being inscribed to the composer's new wife.

The piece several times quotes a children's song, “Nous n 'irons plus au bois”(“We'll Go to the Woods No More”), which Debussy had also used long ago in one of his melodies, La Belle au bois dormant (Sleeping Beauty), as well as more recently in Jardins sous la pluie (Gardens in the Rain) in his 1903 piano suite Estampes. A curiously dark choice for a spring piece, this is. It is interesting how "unstraight'' Debussy's quotations are here as against what he does in those earlier pieces. To recall a Boulez comment I cited earlier:  "Even when themes reappear, the music never looks back" as Debussy gives us a new variant of the tune each time. A striking feature of Rondes de printemps is the odd five-beat rhythm that runs through much of it, a charming eccentricity it had also delighted him to use in Fêtes,the second of the Nocturnes for orchestra, which is in any case part of the pedigree of this fiercely energized little tone poem.

Some of you will have had the experience of spending a few hours in Tijuana for a bit of shopping and a good dinner. You can tell that it's different from what you left behind in San Diego and Chula Vista, but your excursion doesn't really entitle you to say that you know Mexico. Debussy's experience of Spain was something like that. On one single afternoon he crossed the border, traveled the three miles or so to San Sebastian, watched a bullfight, and was probably back in Saint-Jean-de-Luz in time for supper. That was all, but he saw—and heard—Spain more clearly than many a traveler who has spent weeks there. As Manuel de Falla put it: "Claude Debussy wrote Spanish music without knowing Spain, that is to say without knowing the land of Spain, which is a different matter. Debussy knew Spain from his reading, from pictures, from songs, and from dances with songs danced by true Spanish dancers." Whatever the sources, external or internal, Spain was vividly alive in his imagination. Falla even went so far as to say that it was Debussy who taught Spanish composers how to write Spanish music. Surely that goes a bit too far.

For Debussy had undoubtedly learned much about Spanish music from Albéniz and Falla. Falla recounts that from his afternoon at the San Sebastián corrida Debussy had an indelible memory of "the light in the bullring, particularly the violent contrast between the one half of the ring flooded with sunlight and the other half deep in shade." The distribution of light and shade is something an artist must command in planning and executing a work on a large scale. La Mer had convinced Debussy he could do it. Now, in 1908 he was ready to take the plunge and sing a love song on a grand scale to the country that so engaged him and that he did not care or need to see.

Ibéria, the central panel of the Images triptych, is itself a triptych. The first movement is called Par les Rues et par les chemins (Along the Highways and Byways).The music begins with a crisply dissonant chord (G major plus A) that is also the first beat of a rhythm, spelled out by woodwinds and castanets, which will be virtually ever-present in this picture.

Against this dominant rhythm, a clarinet unfolds a melody at once elegant and jaunty. The detail is rich and wonderful. Later, English horn, second violins (in octaves), and half the cellos propose a languorous variant of the clarinet melody. A consistent marvel in Ibéria is Debussy's scoring for strings—his subdivisions of sections, his sparing and precise use of the basses, and, not least, his clear distinction between first and second violins. Later, oboe and a solo viola give us still another and well-stretched version of the melody. The horns offer to change the subject: Somewhere on one of these highways or byways there is a marching band. For a few moments this energetic manner prevails, but really, this is a lazy sort of afternoon, and after the opening music has returned the movement evaporates in a series of soft shudders, plinks, and sighs.

Debussy calls the middle movement Les Parfums de la nuit. In these pages of Ibéria Debussy sets out to caress us most deliciously with the remembered—or imagined—scents of oleander and sweet chestnut, wild rose and thyme. "Slow and dreamy," he writes, and the score is filled with pleas for rubato and for the music to be souple, sans rigueur, or doux et mélancolique.

Subtly, Debussy builds a bridge from the first movement to this one. It is as though he wished there could really be no break at all between the two movements. Cellos, divided into seven parts (six solos plus all the rest), set up a softly swaying habanera rhythm against which the oboe brings back the poignant oboe/viola melody from the first movement. The sonorities become richer and richer, and at one point the accompanying strings are divided into fourteen parts. As though propelled by a great harp glissando, the first violins bring in a new music of fierce passion. At first the orchestra ignores this in favor of softer matters including a lovely and distant-sounding melody for solo violin and bassoon, but gradually this impassioned outburst comes to the fore and the music rises on a great crest.

The tension subsides, and it seems that amid slowly disintegrating fragments of melody the movement is about to come to a close. But suddenly, with a blur of string trills and tremolos and uncertain harmonies in the foreground, we hear the distant sound of bells. It is there just for a moment; then the dying falls of the second movement resume just as though this ghost had never manifested. The melody stops in mid-thought, and from far, far away we hear the sound of a band. Then, after four bars of march rhythm, the closing melody of the previous movement returns ("still more distant," writes Debussy). This lasts for just two measures, then it is gone. Thus each movement has a moment of print-through from its neighbor. Here, too, Debussy is reluctant to define sharp endings and beginnings; he even ties the tempos together, asking that the quarter notes of the third movement go at the same speed as the eighth notes of the second.

Of his Le Matin d'un jour de fête (Holiday Morning), Debussy said: "It sounds like music that has not been written down—the whole feeling of rising, of people and nature waking. There is a watermelon vendor and children whistling—I see them all clearly!" With the greatest imaginable care and precision, Debussy has written down his vision of happy chaos, of marchers and dancers, of a dance band (the violins and violas are told to hold their instruments as though they were guitars), of a country fiddler, of wind players blasting their raucously cheery tunes. Memories of the two earlier movements are evoked, not always reverently. The festivities get giddier, and in a blaze of orchestral color and with almost disconcerting abruptness Ibéria comes to its joyous close.

Debussy dropped tristes from his original title, but Gigues is still a melancholic piece—and a richly poetic and lovely one. Each of the Images has its own national coloration. This is most obviously true of Ibéria, but Rondes de printemps quotes a French children's song and Gigues bas always been described as connected to the British Isles. Certainly Gigues is the piece in which the national connection is most elusive. The plaintive song of the oboe d' amore could be an English folk song (if someone told us it was, we would not react in disbelief), and the dotted figure the bassoons play right after that tune has been associated with a Scottish tune, Weel may the keel row, but the resemblance does not immediately speak to the ear.

Gigues begins with scoring of singular delicacy. C above middle C is sounded pianissimo by a muted trumpet and half of the second violins, also muted, the remainder of the second violins being added two measures later. All this prepares another C—flute and two stands of first violins, muted—which turns out to be the first note of a wistful tune that, ever so gently, suggests gigue rhythm, though greatly slowed down. Harp scales want to urge the music along, and it is through their encouragement that the wistful oboe d'amore tune arrives, unaccompanied. The arrival immediately after of the maybe-or-maybe-not Scottish phrase on the bassoons, followed by the oboe, suggests that all this has been a slow introduction to a relatively fast piece, but this is only more or less true at best. The most remarkable characteristic of Gigues is the simultaneous existence of two rhythmic worlds—that of the triste oboe d'amore tune and the one of the lively figuration below and around it. Boulez points out that "giving the [one] theme exclusively to the oboe d'amore helps to isolate it in the listener's mind. . . . (Its] tone also makes us aware that the tempo of this tune wiII not be 'disturbed' by the appearances of other figures in a different tempo." And this subtly layered coexistence of melancholy and jollity goes far to account for the poignancy of this musical poem, whose "evaporation" at its close even surpasses its opening in subtlety and delicacy.

Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s program annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

More About the Music
Recordings: Michael Tilson Thomas and the Boston Symphony Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon)  |  Pierre Monteux and the San Francisco Symphony  (Preiser)

Reading: Debussy: His Life and Mind, by Edward Lockspeiser (Cambridge)

(May 2014)