DEBUSSY: Images / Estampes / Images oubliees (Francois-Joel Thiollier/ Joël Perrot) (Naxos: 8.553292)
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Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
Piano Works, Vol. 3
Images, Series 1 (1901-05) and 2 (1907)
Images oubliees (1894)
La plus que lente (1910)
L'Isle joyeuse (1904)
Claude Debussy was born in 1862, the son of a shop-keeper who was later to turn his hand to other activities, with varying success. He started piano lessons at the age of seven and continued two years later, improbably enough, with Verlaine's mother-in-law, who claimed to have been a pupil of Chopin. In 1872 he entered the Conservatoire, where he abandoned the plan of becoming a virtuoso pianist, turning his principal attention to composition. In 1880, at the age of eighteen, and in the following two summers, he was employed by Tchaikovsky's patroness Nadezhda von Meck as tutor to her children and house-musician. On his return to the Conservatoire from the first of these visits abroad, he entered the class of Bizet's friend Ernest Guiraud and in 1884 won the Prix de Rome, the following year reluctantly taking up obligatory residence, according to the terms of the prize, at the Villa Medici in Rome, where he met Liszt. By 1887 he was back in Paris, winning his first significant success in 1900 with Nocturnes for orchestra and going on, two years later, to a succ?¿s de scandale with his opera Pelleas et Melisande, based on the play by Maurice Maeterlinck, a work that established his position as a composer of importance.
Debussy's personal life brought some unhappiness in his first marriage in 1899 to a mannequin, Lily Texier, after an intermittent liaison of some ten years with Gabrielle Dupont. His association from 1903 with Emma Bardac, the wife of a banker and an amateur singer, led to their eventual marriage in 1908. In the summer of 1904 he had abandoned his wife, moving into an apartment with Emma Bardac, and the subsequent attempt at suicide by his wife, who had shared with him the difficulties of his early career, alienated a number of the composer's friends. His final years were darkened by the war and by cancer, the cause of his death in March 1918, when he left unfinished a planned series of chamber music works, describing himself patriotically as musicien fran?ºais, only three of which had been completed.
As a composer Debussy must be regarded as one of the most important and influential figures of the earlier twentieth century. His musical language suggested new paths to be further explored while his poetic and sensitive use of the orchestra and of keyboard textures opened still more possibilities. His opera Pelleas et Melisande and his songs demonstrated a deep understanding of poetic language, revealed by his music, expressed in terms that never overstated or exaggerated.
A casual glance at the works of Debussy reveals a penchant on the composer's part for the triptych. The three sets of Images on this recording, as well as Estampes (Engravings) offer evidence, and then, of course, there are the orchestral works, La Mer, the three Nocturnes, the orchestral images. It is more than a mere coincidence, however, if you consider Debussy's use of the Golden Section in some of his pieces, and his fondness for architectural proportions, balance and an almost classical sense of structure. Small wonder too, that he was so attracted to the works of Rameau, whose spirit he invokes in the second of Images I, 'Hommage a Rameau' or correspondingly, the second of Images oubliees (Forgotten Images): both are sarabandes. Here, as in the last of the Images oubliees - 'Ouelques aspects de "Nous n'irons plus au bois" parce qu'il fait un temps insupportable' (Several aspects of "We go no more to the woods" because the weather is so unbearable) -where he interweaves a favourite French nursery rhyme into the texture, Debussy's homage to his spiritual masters on the one hand, and his tradition on the other, is completely devoid of pastiche. Paul Valery said of tradition that it is not doing again what others have done before you, but finding the spirit that lies behind those great achievements, and one could apply much the same principle to Debussy's harnessing of tradition in his music.
Debussy wrote the Images oubliees towards the end of 1894 and called them simply Images. They formed part of the collection of Alfred Cortot, and were, in the years between their composition and eventual publication in 1976, largely overshadowed by the two 'books' of Images; hence the title of this triptych - Images oubliees (Forgotten Images). The autograph of this set is prefaced with a recommendation which could largely govern all the music on this disc, and indeed a large proportion of the output of Debussy:
These pieces would fare poorly in les salons brillament illumines where people who don't like music usually congregate. They are rather conversations between the piano and one's self; it is not forbidden furthermore to apply one's small sensibility to them on nice rainy days.
And indeed, speaking of rainy days, Debussy was to reuse material from the last of the Images oubliees in the corresponding piece of another triptych, Estampes, now entitled 'Jardins sous la pluie' (Gardens in the Rain). The set opens with an un-subtitled piece, like the first of Preludes, Book I, inviting the listener to share its own private, gentle world. The second was reworked as the sarabande from Pour le piano, its arguably clumsy-sounding (or forward-looking?) dissonances now smoothed out.
Images I came eleven years later, and was both written and published in 1905. Debussy was justifiably proud of them, inquiring of his publisher Durand if he had played them, for 'without false vanity, I think these three pieces work well and will take their place in piano literature [...] to the left of Schumann or to the right of Chopin ... as you like it'. The first, 'Reflets dans l'eau' (Reflections in the water) is one of the composer's many water pieces and the composer himself pictured the opening as dropping a pebble into the water and seeing the ripples make concentric circles' (note, again, the penchant for balance, proportion, symmetry). The central sarabande, as mentioned, a homage to Rameau, uses not only the entire range of the keyboard, but a vast dynamic range, from pppp to ff, and in the final 'Mouvement' we see yet again the evocation of symmetry. It is a perpetuum mobile, with its busy activity dispersed like some centrifugal force.
If the physical appearance of a composer's manuscript perhaps reveals more about how he wanted the music approached than is often credited, the layering of Images II composed in 1906-07 and published in 1908, assigned three staves instead of two, further reinforces the individual tone-colours, and the subtlety of both metrical and harmonic rhythm.
Debussy's conception of his piano music to be played on an instrument 'without hammers' is something of an anomaly when one considers it in the light of the first of