Debussy: Iberia from Images pour Orchestra

CLAUDE DEBUSSY

BORN: August 22, 1862. Saint-Germain-en-Laye, just outside Paris, France

DIED: March 25, 1918. Paris

COMPOSED: Ibéria is the central panel of a triptych called Images pour orchestre. It was the first of the three pieces to be composed, the orchestral draft score being finished on Christmas Day 1908, the full score reaching its final form the following year.

WORLD PREMIERE: February 20, 1910. Gabriel Pierné conducted the Orchestre Colonne at the Châtelet Theater in Paris

US PREMIERE: January 3, 1911. Gustav Mahler conducted the New York Philharmonic.

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—November 1916. Alfred Hertz conducted. MOST RECENT—May 2014. Michael Tilson Thomas conducted, as part of the entire Images pour orchestre

INSTRUMENTATION: 3 flutes and piccolo (3rd flute also doubling piccolo), 2 oboes and English horn, 3 clarinets, 3 bassoons and contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, tambourine, military drum, castanets, xylophone, celesta, cymbals, chimes, 2 harps, and strings

DURATION: About 20 mins

THE BACKSTORY 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 Sebastián, 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.  

Debussy’s first Spanish piece was La Soirée dans Grenade, the second of the three Estampes (Prints) for piano, composed in 1903. The distance from La Soirée dans Grenade to Ibéria is immense. In the years between, Debussy had undoubtedly learned more about Spanish music from Albéniz and Falla. He had five more years in which the sights and sounds and smells of Spain could occupy his fantasies. And in those five years Debussy had created such masterly works as L’Isle joyeuese, the two books of Images for Piano, and La Mer. He was more of a composer and more of a man. 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 him he could do it. Now 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 need to see.

THE MUSIC Ibéria, the central panel of Debussy’s 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 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—the occasional doublings of parts of the melody by a second clarinet, the cross-rhythm of twos played by the third bassoon against the triplets of the other rhythm instruments, the ever-changing colors of the accompaniment. 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.

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 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.—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.

“The echoes from the villages, the intoxicating spell of Andalusian nights, . . . all this whirls in the air, approaches and recedes, and our imagination is dazzled by the power of intensely expressive and varied music.” Whatever the sources, external or internal, Spain was vividly alive in Debussy's imagination.

More About the Music 

Recordings: Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony, as part of a Grammy-nominated recording of the complete Images pour orchestre (SFS Media) | 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)  |  Debussy on Music, which gives us Debussy in his own words (Knopf, edited by François Lesure and translated by Richard Langham Smith)