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Composed: 1905-1912
Length: c. 20 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 3 flutes (3rd = piccolo 2), 2 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (castanets, chimes, snare drum, tambourine, xylophone), 2 harps, celesta, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: March 3, 1922, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting

Ibéria is the second of three pieces Debussy composed between 1905 and 1912 that are included in the set titled Images pour Orchestre, the first being Gigues, the last Rondes de printemps. Ibéria itself is in three movements. He originally planned the pieces for two pianos, but quite rightly came to the realization that his visions required the full palette of colors of a symphony orchestra, the kind of many-hued Impressionistic orchestra he had imprinted onto the historic French canvas with the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1894), and subsequently Nocturnes (1899), the opera Pelléas et Mélisande (1902), and La mer (1905).

In all of his compositions following Afternoon of a Faun, Debussy refined and distilled the essences of the Impressionistic imagery that emerged full-blown in that amazing piece. Now, what about the term Impressionistic? It might be well here to examine Debussy’s indecisiveness about the word that came into the language to identify his original musical style: Impressionism. Referring to Images, the composer said that in the work he was “trying to achieve something different – an effect of reality.” Then, in a bit of a pique, he complained that “this effect of reality is what some imbeciles call ‘Impressionism,’ a term that is utterly misapplied, especially by the critics.” (Debussy, a member of the critical fraternity himself, had no problem in criticizing the critics.) However, in a program note for Rondes de printemps, apparently sanctioned by Debussy since it was written by his good friend Charles Malherbe, the piece is described as a real picture in which the composer endeavors to convey impressions received by the eye; further, he asks the listeners to visualize what the music gives forth in sound.

Debussy’s aesthetic, whatever it may be called, was one and constant. “I love music passionately,” he declared. “And because I love it I try to free it from barren traditions that stifle it. It is a free art gushing forth, an open-air art, boundless as the elements, the wind, the sky, the sea. It must never be shut in and become an academic art.” In his efforts to free music from barren traditions, Debussy enlisted a series of strange (to 19th-century European Romantics) and wondrous elements: modality, with its primary intervals (octaves, fourths, and fifths) used in parallel motion, conjured an archaic effect; the whole-tone scale of the Far East obviated the need for traditional major/minor cadences; similarly, the pentatonic (five-note) scale evoked further exoticism; enriched chord structures acted as independent entities requiring no passport for their free travel; and on and on.

In the orchestral realm, Debussy manipulated these compositional tools with the utmost subtlety, creating a mosaic of fragments that very often flowed unfettered by rhythmic structure, veiled and illusory, dream-like, drenched in an exquisite array of colors. Suggestions, innuendoes, hints, glimmers, inferences... impressions.

For Debussy, the name of the Spanish game was subtle insinuation, elegant rhythmic dash, and, perhaps surprisingly in a pictorial work such as Ibéria, a considerable amount of polyphonic activity. The Spain he conjured in Ibéria is drawn purely from the imagination, for the French composer had spent no more than a few hours in the country he chose to depict musically. But that Debussy’s Spanish divinations had authentic flavor and spirit was attested to by no less an authority than the great Spanish composer Manuel de Falla, who said of Ibéria, in part: “The echoes from the villages, a kind of sevillana – the generic theme of the work – which seems to float in a clear atmosphere of scintillating light; the intoxicating spell of Andalusian nights, the festive gaiety of a people dancing to the joyous strains of a banda of guitars and bandurrias... all this whirls in the air, approaches and recedes, and our imagination is continually kept awake and dazzled by the power of an intensely expressive and richly varied music.” Falla also thought that Debussy used the ideal approach in composing Ibéria, namely of utilizing merely the fundamental elements of popular music instead of following the usual method of employing authentic folk songs.

The first section, “In the Streets and Byways,” opens with dancing triplet figures in the winds (the woodwinds are the true heroes of Ibéria), castanets, and tambourine, in alternation with strings plucked in modally inflected consecutive fifths. Into this insinuating rhythmic activity the main theme, part plaintive, part haughty, enters on clarinets (two). Throughout the movement this theme, fragmented or in its entirety, on its own or used in a contrapuntal texture, plays the leading role, even though other themes glint in and out of the streets and byways, including a languorous Moorish tune in oboe and viola that will enter again in the second movement, and a martial proclamation by horns and trumpets that is taken up at some length. After a return of the main theme, the music just dissolves into thin air.

The second movement, “Perfumes of the Night,” is pure Impressionistic poetry, opening with an enchanted garden of provocative sonorities: high muted strings, touches of winds, xylophone, celesta, and tambourine form the backdrop for a hesitant oboe which finally finds the courage to sing the seductive melody it foreshadowed in the first movement. An ardent, syncopated idea in the strings becomes an important factor in an increasingly intense climax, after which winds, strings, and muted trumpets recall the first movement’s main theme. After yet another climax, a flute and a violin voice the melancholy motif introduced earlier by horn, and as bells sound in the distance, the third movement, “Morning of a Festival Day,” begins without pause. When the day has fully awakened, the strings, strumming vibrant chords like some giant guitar, take the festivities on a joyous course. Themes from the first and second movements are recalled, and the finale, erupting in dazzling exuberance, is an essay in Iberian abandon illuminated by Gallic control.

— Orrin Howard annotated programs for more than 20 years while serving as the Philharmonic’s Director of Publications and Archives. He continues to contribute regularly to the program book.