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Claude Debussy
Selection from Images, I. Ibéria

Ibéria from Images  
Claude Debussy
(1862-1918)


THE STORY

The second and most famous of Debussy’s Images, Ibéria draws from the manifold colors of the orchestral palette to musically represent the Spanish peninsula. Creating evocative images from the piano and orchestra had already become Debussy’s signature style: the year 1905 alone saw the completion of La Mer, three symphonic sketches inspired by the woodblock prints of the Japanese artist Hokusai, as well as the delightful piano suite Estampes, which treats the listener to glimpses of pagodas and an evening in Grenada before settling down to the sweet patter of raindrops in a springtime garden.

Debussy’s gravitation towards Spanish idioms in 1905 was by no means novel. Paris teemed with a large Spanish émigré community, fostered by the exiled Queen Isabella’s presence in France beginning in 1868. Gallic composers fell sway to the instruments and rhythms of their southern neighbors; attracted to the expanded melodic language of beguiling Arabic modes, they sought to capture these sounds in their own works. Bizet’s Carmen (1873), Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole (1875), Chabrier’s España (1883) and Habanera (1888), to mention a few, were already familiar to Debussy when Ibéria was conceived.

Stylistic variety plays a central role in Debussy’s portrayal of Spain. Par les rues et par les chemins takes audiences across a busy Spanish square filled with the boisterous clamor of castanets, tambourines, and tuneful clarinets. Tripping down the cobbled boulevards, one hears various instruments pass around the melody before stopping to marvel at a mosque—its elaborate domes, multifoil arches, and colorful mosaics testifying to seven centuries of Muslim rule on the peninsula. Les parfums de la nuit showcases Debussy’s penchant for effortless improvisation with flexible rhythms and harmonic shifts. The final movement rushes in to bring Debussy’s Iberian reverie to a memorable close.


LISTEN FOR

  • In Par les rues et par les chemins, piccolos, flutes, and English horns that wind through Arabic scales while violins offer atmospheric harmonics and light pizzicato 
  • A sudden fanfare of horns that cuts through the moment, as Debussy points towards ruins of the amphitheaters, vestiges of Iberia’s ancient Roman heritage 
  • In Les parfums de la nuit, frequent shifts in musical time through the use of varied tempo markings: rubato, librement (freely), sans presser (without hurrying), fantasque (whimsical), and anime (lively) 
  • Muted violins that first support woodwinds, then utter glissandos against sustained harmonies that suspend the eeriness of dusk 
  • In the final movement, distant horns and bells that signal the dawning of a new day  
  • A flurry of excitement as violins imitate Spanish guitars with the strumming of full chords 
  • English horn, oboe, and solo violin play modal melodies, while themes from the first and second movements return 

INSTRUMENTATION

Three flutes (one doubling piccolo), piccolo, two oboes, English horn, three clarinets, three bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, two harps, celesta, strings