2017 Blossom Music Festival
August 19 – Saturday at 8:00 p.m.
Ibéria, from Images
Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
At a Glance
Debussy composed his three Images for orchestra between 1905 and 1912. Ibéria was completed late in 1908 and Rondes de printemps in the following year. Gigues was not completed until 1912. Ibéria was premiered on February 20, 1910, with Gabriel Pierné conducting.
The first American performance of Ibéria was given by Gustav Mahler and the New York Philharmonic on January 3, 1911.
Ibéria runs about 20 minutes in performance. Debussy scored it for piccolo, 3 flutes (third doubling second piccolo), 2 oboes, english horn, 3 clarinets, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (tambourine, side drum, castanets, xylophone, 3 bells), celesta, 2 harps, and strings.
Ibéria was introduced to The Cleveland Orchestra’s repertoire by Nikolai Sokoloff in January 1921. The Orchestra played it most recently in 2010 under the direction of Pierre Boulez.
The Cleveland Orchestra and Pierre Boulez have recorded Debussy’s complete Images twice, in 1967 and in 1991.
About the Music
French musicians have often been inspired by the rhythms of Spanish music, at least since the time of Bizet’s Carmen in 1875. Two composers from the generation preceding Debussy in particular owed their fame to their “Spanish” compositions. Edouard Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole (1875) and Emmanuel Chabrier’s España (1883) must have been familiar to the young Debussy, who himself wrote the piano piece La soirée dans Grenade (“Evening in Grenada”) in 1903 (No. 2 of Estampes).
It is interesting that, aside from one short trip across the border, Debussy never visited Spain. Evenso, he knew the music of a number of contemporary Spanish composers, including Manuel de Falla and Isaac Albéniz. (The latter had used the title “Iberia” in a magnificent suite for piano published in four volumes between 1906 and 1908.) Falla had warm words of praise for Debussy’s Ibéria, which he claimed had “a considerable and decisive influence on young Spanish composers.”
The first section of Ibéria, titled Par les rues et par les chemins (“In the Streets and Byways”), creates an immediate Spanish atmosphere with the sound of the castanets. The whole town is out in the streets on a warm summer evening. People are walking, talking, singing, and dancing. The clarinets play a dance tune marked by the composer as “elegant and rhythmic” and harmonized with parallel chords, one of Debussy’s recurrent techniques. Later, an equally cheerful second theme is heard in the horns and clarinets, soon combined with a third melody which, in contrast, is more lyrical and expressive in character. The first theme with the castanet accompaniment finally returns (now played by the oboes instead of the clarinets). At last, the noisy parade is over; the people go home and the movement ends pianissimo.
The second section is called Les parfums de la nuit (“The Fragrances of the Night”). Falla perceived in Debussy’s music “the intoxicating spell of Andalusian nights” — and Falla would have known, as he was born in that province of Spain. Several factors contribute to the magic of this movement. First, Debussy’s virtuosic orchestration makes a sophisticated use of divided strings (at one point, the first violins are split into seven different groups, all playing with special techniques such as glissandos and harmonics). The celesta part is every bit as “celestial” as the instrument’s name. The chords are again “parallel,” with every part moving by the same interval regardless of keys. As a result, we get what is often called the “whole-tone scale” (C, D, E, F-sharp, G-sharp, A-sharp), in which each of the six steps is a whole step higher than the preceding one (with no half-steps). This scale is incompatible with the traditional Western major-minor system, which is dependent on the half-step as a critical difference in scalar sequences. Because its degrees are equidistant, they are all equally important, and any note can serve as a temporary or permanent resting-point. This gives the music a sense of hovering in the air, or of never touching the ground or reaching a clear closure.
The third section of Ibéria, called Le matin d’un jour de fête (“The Morning of a Festival Day”) follows upon the night without interruption. As the day begins to break, we hear the distant sound of a drum along with some soft string pizzicatos [“plucked”]. The night music returns for a moment in the form of a three-measure flute solo. The violins and violas imitate the sound of guitars — Debussy’s score even instructs half the players to hold their instruments like guitars. The clarinets play their solo “very cheerfully, exaggerating the accents.” The violin solo, full of double stops, must be “free and whimsical” (libre et fantasque); the oboe and english horn parts are marked “merry and whimsical” (gai et fantasque).
According to correspondence with his publisher, Debussy had some difficulty choosing from three different ways of ending the piece. “Shall I toss up between them,” Debussy wrote, “or try to find a fourth solution?” He finally opted for a big crescendo, “brisk and vigorous” (vif et nerveux); the last word belongs to the trombones, which cap the piece with a stupendous three-part glissando. —Peter Laki © 2017
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