Claude Debussy (1862 - 1918), Images I L105 & Images II L105 (1903 & 1907)
Performed by Pascal Rogé
00:00 - No. 1 Reflets dans l’eau
05:02 - No. 2 Hommage à Rameau
11:57 - No. 3 Mouvement
15:16 - No. 4 Cloches à travers les feuilles
20:08 - No. 5 Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut
25:47 - No. 6 Poissons d’or
The six Images were in Debussy’s mind in some form as early as December 1901, when he played versions of two of them (Reflets dans l’eau and Mouvement) to the pianist Ricardo Viñes, but the complete list of titles was not fixed until July 1903, when he sent these to the publisher Fromont. He had just completed the Estampes, and the Images, the first book of which was published in October 1905, can be heard as a development along the same colouristic lines, following earlier intimations in various pieces by Chabrier and in Ravel’s Jeux d’eau. The technique has been called one of illusion—what you see on the printed page is often not at all what you get, depending largely on your use of the sustaining pedal—but equally Debussy shared the concerns of such ‘colourful’ composers as Berlioz and Liszt that overtly descriptive music should also work in purely structural terms.
The small wave forms of Reflets dans l’eau and its key of D flat major might suggest it was a spin-off from La mer, except that the above chronology points, if anything, to the relationship being reversed. Debussy jokingly referred to the piece as being written ‘according to the most recent discoveries in harmonic chemistry’. While this is perhaps a trifle exaggerated, what is disturbing is the way the dreamlike opening, a standard eight-bar phrase, is immediately interrupted by chromatic chords: throughout the piece, the reflections in the water go on being unsettled by pebbles thrown from an unseen hand. The essential circularity of this piece is echoed in the final Mouvement, which is almost an early Étude (‘Pour les triolets’?). Marked to be played ‘with a fantastical but precise lightness’, it achieves an extraordinary rapprochement between academic note-spinning and imaginative atmosphere, with a few fanfares added for good measure. The central Hommage à Rameau, while outwardly placid and monumental, partakes of more traditional rhetorical structures and of the effortless internal dynamism that is so much a part of the genius of Rameau, ‘without any of that pretence towards German profundity, or to the need of emphasizing things with blows of the fist’, as Debussy put it when reviewing a performance of the first two acts of Rameau’s Castor et Pollux in 1903—which possibly inspired his piece, although searches for direct quotations from the earlier composer have so far proved fruitless.
Heavy pounding is even further banished in the second book of Images, published in October 1907. In Cloches à travers les feuilles, apart from two forte chords in the middle, the dynamics are set at piano and below. Within these narrow confines, Debussy explores the idea of bells sounding through leaves, or at least through some substance that flickers and undulates. Although the title of this piece was, as noted above, already fixed in 1903, it is at least possible, given his rivalry with Ravel, that in composing the piece Debussy took note of the younger composer’s La vallée des cloches, published in early 1906, even if only in the determination to write something as different as possible. The demands on the pianist, in the balancing of lines, are extreme: again, the piece could almost be an Étude—‘Pour les lignes superposées’? The second panel of the triptych, Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut, leads on from Pagodes in the Estampes in its exploitation, not so much of Oriental sounds like the gamelan, though these are certainly present, as of an Oriental stillness and stasis. The first chord belongs, in the Western tradition, as part of a sixteenth-century cadence, achieved through part-writing: Debussy gives it a quite new feeling by treating it as a non-cadential chord with no sense of part-writing whatever, just as a sound in itself. Like the ruined temple, it has survived, but in a new world and with a new function. Finally, Poissons d’or charts the imagined swoops and twitches of two large carp as featured on a Japanese plaque in black lacquer, touched up with mother-of-pearl and gold, that hung on the wall of Debussy’s study. Here indeed we do find him enjoying ‘the most recent discoveries in harmonic chemistry’, and taking the static ‘well motif’ from Pelléas and investing it with piscine acrobatics.