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In 1911, when he was almost 50, with a raft of tradition-breaking compositions to his credit and with many more yet to come, Debussy wrote these critical words in a letter to composer Edgard Varèse, words that reveal how much he understood about the nature of his creativity: “I love pictures almost as much as music.” This quasi-confession, linking his aural art to the graphic one, calls to mind a similar connection between music and a different creative discipline made by Robert Schumann. In the mid-19th century, Schumann, like Debussy a critic and journalist, expressed it this way: “The painter can learn from a symphony by Beethoven, just as the musician can learn from a work by [the great German writer] Goethe.”
The point here is that Debussy must have felt that a picture, at least an important one, expressed that which lay beyond the obvious and communicated to the observer that which is intangible and “inexpressible.” The French composer sought to paint pictures with tones, to create visions as yet unrecorded in music, and to the extent that his music evolved in a manner consonant with such a painter as Monet, it was inevitable that he become associated with the painterly movement called Impressionism. But Debussy rejected that term just as he recoiled at being dubbed a Symbolist. In reality it was not so much that he disdained the terms Impressionism and Symbolism as it was his intense desire not to be categorized.
What is far more important than his classification is his music itself. And whether or not one searches beneath the sensory impressions of, say, Reflections in the Water (the first of the Images) to find an underlying meaning to Debussy’s sonorous painting of the scene, beauty of sound and impressiveness of the pianistic means employed almost certainly are value enough to the listening experience.
If Debussy didn’t want to be a painter, one could hardly tell that, considering the subject matter of so many of his works: reflections in the water, gardens in the rain, the ocean, dancing snow, cavorting goldfish, and on and on. In 1905 he began three sets of compositions depicting or conveying a variety of pictures – images, Images, one set of three pieces for orchestra and two sets with three pieces each for piano.
Water was one of the favorite subjects of Impressionist painters, and so it became for Debussy. It can certainly be argued that Reflets dans l’eau (Reflections in the Water) is more than an aural picture of physical water, although it is surely that. In the very quiet opening there is a sense of mystery that is evoked, akin to the familiar sight of a pebble thrown into a pond, with the ever-widening circles that result hypnotizing one into thoughts of the secrets of infinity. Indeed, the pianist Marguerite Long, a contemporary of Debussy, said that the composer referred to the opening motif as “a little circle in water with a little pebble falling into it.” A perfect fifth sounding in the bass sets the water in motion by way of series of rising and falling chords in the treble set against a three-note motif, also in the treble but played by the left hand. Streams of arpeggios emerge until the opening returns, this time with the solid chords broken into arpeggios. The “circle in the water” increases in scope, reaching a big Lisztian climax that is, however, quickly exhausted and followed by a pensive, introverted ending. The mystery is unsolved.
Because Debussy had a deep admiration for French culture of the 18th century, it’s understandable that his attention would fall upon one of the greatest of the country’s composers of that period, Jean Philippe Rameau. Indicating that the Hommage à Rameau is “in the style of a Sarabande,” a slow, stately 18th-century dance form, Debussy proceeds to use all the resources of the piano to invest the music with a sense of antiquity at the opening, and eventually of bold, broad Romanticism. It is the longest and most highly developed of the Images.
Both sets of Images require the services of a virtuoso if the pieces are to be fully realized. Mouvement, however, is pure virtuosity, beginning with the ostinato (repeated) triplet figures and proceeding through a nonstop etude-like development that Debussy said “must revolve itself in an implacable rhythm. The difficulties are not exclusively digital but concern also the lower extremity of the leg – the foot, that is, which must operate the pedal with ultimate subtlety, so that Debussy’s instruction for “whimsical but precise lightness” be achieved.