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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, Claude Debussy (1862-1918) wrote these critical words in a letter to composer Edgar Varèse (1883-1965), 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.

Yet however much he rankled about being labeled anything, Debussy’s historical fate has been to be identified as the inventor of Impressionism in music. One can think of a lot worse things to be called. 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 pianistic means employed almost certainly are value enough to the listening experience.

Debussy’s contemporaries clearly recognized the musician’s desire to be allied to the visual arts. His close friend René Peter said, “To judge by his works, and by their titles, he is a painter and that is what he wants to be. He calls his compositions pictures, sketches, prints, arabesques, masques, studies in black and white. Plainly it is his delight to paint in music.” The painter Maurice Denis expressed it this way: “His music kindled strange resonances within us, awakened a need at the deepest level for a lyricism that only he could satisfy. What the Symbolist generation was searching for with such passion and anxiety – light, sonority, and color, the expression of the soul, and the frisson of mystery – was realized by him unerringly; almost, it seemed to us then, without effort. We perceived that here was something new.”

As in virtually everything that is new, there is something old being acted upon. In the case of Debussy’s piano music, there was the keyboard heritage of Chopin and Liszt. Like an inspired chef, Debussy created a ravishing new pianistic menu by reshaping, reordering, and adding distinctly new flavorings to the ingredients at hand. In the area of harmony, he struck out in new-old paths, invoking ancient times with the modal intervals of octaves, fourths, and fifths. He conjured the Far East by exploiting the whole-tone and pentatonic (five-note) scales; and he broke down the traditional system of key relationships. Further in his quest for originality he abandoned classical forms almost completely and freed rhythm of confining strictures. With all of these methods he created music that served as a sensuous suggestion of poetry, nature, and a myriad variety of moods and atmospheres. And he accomplished all of this with such originality that the 20th century’s great innovator Igor Stravinsky said simply, “The musicians of my generation and myself owe the most to Debussy.”

Debussy composed his first piano piece in 1880 – the somewhat innocuous Danse bohémienne, but he hardly formed his characteristic style until many years later, specifically in Claire de lune, the slow movement of his Suite bergamasque. Here the Chopin nocturne is seen to be ingeniously updated by parallel harmonies, which are often blurred as they overlap and/or are blended by the pedal (a crucial tool in his building of tonal structures); by hazy, suggestive textures and vaguely contoured phrase structures; and by sonority as an end in itself. In all, there is an ambiance of idyllic paganism that marks much of Debussy’s music.

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.

Images, Set I (1905)

Reflets dans l’eau (Reflections in the Water)

Water was one of the favorite subjects of Impressionist painters, and so it became for Debussy, and also for Ravel, e.g., Jeux d’eau, Une barque sur l’ocean. It can certainly be argued that 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.

Hommage à Rameau

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 (1683-1764). Indicating that the Hommage 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.

Mouvement

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.

Images, Set II

Cloches à travers les feuilles (Bells Through the Leaves)

Debussy first heard Javanese musicians at the Paris Universal Exposition and the sounds of the gamelan they played stayed with him, surfacing in the allusions to the instrument in the present piece. Writing about Java in 1913, he said, “There was once, and there still is, despite the evils of civilization, a race of delightful people who learnt music as easily as we learn to breathe. Their academy is the eternal rhythm of the sea, the wind in the leaves, thousands of tiny sounds which they listen to attentively without ever consulting arbitrary treatises.” The bells of the title are initiated in the first two measures by way of a whole tone scale, from which the entire piece is constructed. The simplicity of this opening belies a predominant complexity of intertwining parts that requires the music be written on three staves. A middle episode of pianistic brilliance contrasts strongly with the exotic, otherworldly sonorities of the first and last sections.

Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut (And the Moon Sets over the Temple That Was)

Debussy dedicated this piece to his good friend and biographer Louis Laloy, an authority on oriental and ancient Greek music. The poetic wording of the title, the fragmentary melodic structure, the pungent dissonances, and the almost floating nature of the sonorities all confirm what Debussy referred to as the search by the poets and painters of the Symbolist movement for “the inexpressible, which is the ideal of all art.”

Poissons d’or (Goldfish)

This piece, along with Reflections on the Water, is probably the most frequently performed of the Images sets. And no wonder, since it is both brilliant and evocative. Obviously, goldfish are inextricably associated with water, but here, unlike Reflections, the imagery is concrete. It is said that a painting of two gold-colored fish on a small Japanese lacquer panel that Debussy owned was the inspiration for this work. In order to suggest the darting movements of these tiny water creatures, a pianist must be at once the master of grace and elegance as well as of freedom of expression. Debussy’s images, whatever the subject, have a fantasy that is as closely related to mental images as to the physical reality of pianistic bravura.

- Note by Orrin Howard