Debussy and Ravel performed by the Orchestre National de France and Karine Deshayes

Live video concert: the Orchestre National de France, conducted by Emmanuel Krivine, performs the Printemps et Images pour orchestre by Claude Debussy, followed by Ravel’s Shéhérazade with Karine Deshayes. Live from the Auditorium of Radio France on Saturday 24 March 2018.

Auditorium de Radio France

“I love pictures almost as much as music”, admitted Debussy in 1911. Passionate about the pre-Raphaelite period, seduced by the works of Turner, and fascinated by Hokusai and Hiroshige, the titles of several of Debussy’s works are proof that the musician found much inspiration in painting and the visual arts in general: Estampes, two volumes for piano entitled Images, and even a vast triptych for orchestra also entitled Images.

Despite these associations, the music refutes any and all descriptive intentions and shies away from imposing precise visual imagery. When Debussy declared that within his work Ibériathere is a watermelon seller and whistling children”, it was not so as to create a detailed programme but rather to allow the performer to find the precise tone and colour of the work.

The composer includes folkloric references in each of the works. Gigues borrows its dancing rhythm from Scotland, a country having already inspired the melodic theme from La Fille aux cheveux de lin (1881), whose title would be later used for a Prélude from the first volume (1909-1910). Iberia, rhythmically marked by castanets, Basque-styled percussion, and pizzicato strings, is reminiscent of guitar music and Spanish dances. Rondes de Printemps cites and transforms the nursery rhyme Nous n’irons plus au bois et Do, do, l’enfant do (already used in Jardins sous la pluie, the third of the Estampes). As an epigraph of this Image, Debussy used two verses from La Maggiolata, a popular Tuscan song from the Renaissance: “Long live May, Let us welcome May, With its wild banner.” The pictorial elements seem nonetheless anecdotal, since they are absorbed by the composer’s musical poetry. Above all, it was important to Debussy for his audience to feel the spirit and essence of the countries evoked rather than to attempt to realistically illustrate them.

These images required Debussy to continuously re-work his compositions. Almost ten years separate the first sketches of Images and their completion, due to the complexity of both eliminating the banality of traditional folklore and concealing the composer’s workings. Debussy wrote to his editor Jacques Durand in 1907, stating “There were still many passages that worried me…it was well written, but it was done so with the habitual and boring routine that is so difficult to overcome. I now truly see what I need – and not this thankless labour for which I am decidedly not made.” 

After years of work, the oboe d’amore (an instrument whose range lies between the oboe and the English horn) conveys the soft wailing that perfectly expresses in Gigues the intimate torment. The orchestra in Ibéria progressively reveals its mysterious and flamboyant colours, whilst Rondes de printemps seems to accompany the evolution of bodiless creatures. The unpredictable and fluid nature of the melody give a sense of improvisation and ever-changing transition. “You can’t imagine how the transition from Parfums de la nuit to Le Matin d’un jour de fête works so naturally. It almost seems unwritten…” Normally so demanding of himself, the composer seemed for once to have achieved his vision. 

Debussy: "Printemps", conducted by d’Emmanuel Krivine 

Ravel: Shéhérazade performed by Karine Deshayes 

Debussy: Images pour orchestra, conducted by d’Emmanuel Krivine