Ibéria from Images
Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
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.
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