Debussy: Ibéria

Claude Debusy (1862-1918)

1. Par les rues et par les chemins (In the streets and byways)
2. Les Parfumes de la nuit (Perfumes of the night)
3. Le matin d'un jour de fête (The morning of a festival day)

When Debussy composed Ibéria, the central part of his orchestral triptych Images (and the first to be written), he was at a turning point in his life. The notoriety that characterised his early successes had become international fame with the first productions of his opera Pelléas et Mélisande in 1902. The cult of “Debussyism” reached its peak, and scandal was replaced by expectation.

As is often the case, success was to be swiftly followed by a backlash. Those who had championed his earlier work found his new music staid in comparison. Those who had always considered his style to be a threat to the very foundations of all musical orthodoxy found more grist to their mill.

Shortly after he completed Ibéria in December 1909, Debussy exhibited the first symptoms of the cancer that would eventually kill him. In June 1912 his transformation from enfant terrible to yesterday’s man was brought home forcefully to him when he sat at the piano with the young Igor Stravinsky and played through the piano score of The Rite of Spring.

Some say that Images betrays a falling off of inspiration. This is unfair. Ibéria, in particular, shows off Debussy’s masterly and original way with an orchestra to the full, including what is for him an unusually unrestrained percussion section. Debussy had a strong mystical streak, which came from his involvement with the Symbolist movement. One of the aims of the Symbolists was to create art so evocative that it actually becomes the thing it depicts. In his attempt to achieve this, Debussy jettisoned traditional ideas of musical structure and form. A letter he wrote to a friend reveals something of what he aimed at: “You can’t imagine how naturally the transition works between ‘Parfums de la nuit’ and ‘Le matin d’un jour de fête’. It sounds as though it’s improvised.”

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