Everything you need to know about Images pour orchestre by Claude Debussy

The third section of Debussy's Images is known in particular for its second movement, Iberia. Its Spanish character is so seductive that it tends to eclipse the other two movements. Here is a short look at the final section of Debussy's Images, this time solely for orchestra.

Everything you need to know about Images pour orchestre by Claude Debussy
Everything you need to know about Images pour orchestre by Claude Debussy, © Getty / Henri Manuel

Be sure not to confuse Debussy's Images pour orchestre with his Images pour piano! The composer wrote in total three works entitled Images, the third of which is for orchestra. It is made up of three "movements": Gigues, Iberia and Rondes de printemps, composed between 1905 and 1912.

The triptych was first performed in its entirety on 26 January 1913 at the Concerts Colonne in Paris, conducted by the composer. 

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Images, from piano to orchestra

As early as 1896, Debussy originally envisaged one large ensemble for all three Images, as was revealed in a contract signed by the composer with his editor Jacques Durand on 8 July 1903. The idea was to write "Twelve works for piano two-hands and two pianos four-hands, or orchestra", as described by François Lesure, one of Debussy's biographers. Though the order and titles of the first two Images remained untouched, those for the final series, at the time entitled Iberia, Gigue Triste and Rondes, were slightly modified.

The three works are independant and are each inspired by very different sources. According to François-René Tranchefort, Gigues draws from the song "Dansons la gigue" by Charles Bordes and various Scottish themes, whereas Iberia displays more Spanish influences. With regards to the Rondes de printemps, they use popular airs such as "Nous n'irons plus au bois", a song previously used in the Estampes.

Un jardin à Séville. Peint par Manuel Garcia y Rodriguez vers 1892
Un jardin à Séville. Peint par Manuel Garcia y Rodriguez vers 1892, © Getty / Universal History Archive / Coll. Universal Images Group

Iberia, a journey through an imaginary Spain

Iberia is undeniably the most famous of the Images pour orchestre. Through his music, Debussy is able to transport his audiences to Spain without ever having set foot on its soil! However, this is not a mere musical pastiche. As recalled by Jean-Marc Goossens, even the Spanish composer Manuel de Falla applauded Debussy's ability to evoke authentically the country's impressions from an imaginary folklore: " The intoxicating spell of Andalusian nights, the joyous strains of guitars and bandurrias...all this whirling in the air".

Completed in 1908, Iberia is itself divided into three sections. Par les rues et par les chemins opens the triptych, bringing to mind the idea of a bustling Catalonia, its themes punctuated by a popular dancing rhythm from Seville, the Sevillana, with catagnettes and Basque drum. This is followed by the exhilirating Parfums de la nuit, a passionate music, cadenced by a habanera rhythm.

Authenticity, simplicity, fluidity... Even the transition between the final two sections appears natural, and Debussy was more than a little proud of this! "It almost seems unwritten…”, he wrote to his friend André Caplet. In closing of the triptych, Le Matin d’un jour de fête evokes a sunny early morning, as suggested by the bright key of G major. François-René Tranchefort notes that within the work we can hear a "procession of 'banda de guitarras y bandurias'", and that "the pizzicato strings [...] must play 'quasi guitarra' [like a guitar]".

When the critics are opposed to novelty

Just like La Mer, the work was certainly far from a resounding success on the day of its premiere. So far, in fact, that audiences whistled and booed upon hearing the Images pour orchestre! Iberia and Rondes de printemps were first performed in February and March 1910 in Paris. François-René Tranchefort notes that, though yet again critics and audiences alike were less than enthusiastic, Debussy nonetheless found several admirers, most notably Maurice Ravel, "moved to tears by the rustlings of Iberia" and overcome by the "exquisite freshness" of the Rondes de printemps.

"Oh the excessive use of drums and woodwind, the oboes, the clarinets, and their incessant snuffling! Oh the eternally stuffy brass section, these instruments whose true function and normal sound is never called upon but instead always cackle with a voice like Pulcinella! Oh this music typical of a Tunisian café or the rue de Caire", wrote the critic Pierre Lalo,regarding Iberia.

According to François Lesure, the New York critics at the time were of the same opinion, as Parisian critics with regards to La Mer, citing for example the "collapse of structure" and "strange and confusing sonorities". Ironically, they were not entirely wrong in that Debussy sought indeed to mask the structure of his works and free himself from conventional forms. "I am more and more convinced that music is not, in essence, a thing which can be cast into a more traditional and fixed form."

André Caplet, friend and man in the shadows

At the time of his Images, Debussy learned that he was suffering from cancer. The year 1909 was one of the darkest for the composer, as he underwent his first medical treatments, describing it as an "almost agonising [...] tyranny". Fortunately, his friend André Caplet stayed to help and took part in the final corrections of the Rondes de printemps.

If André Caplet is known to us today, it is largely due to his orchestrations of the works of Debussy, and in particular La Boîte à joujoux and Children’s Corner. The two friends shared many points in common. Much like Debussy, Caplet maintained a rather conflictual relationship with the Prix de Rome foundation. Whereas Debussy was criticised for his extravagant compositions submitted in protest to what he perceived as an overly academic tradition, Caplet was reprimanded for not following the submission rules.

Both composers drew from similar sources of inspiration, including the works of Paul Verlaine and Edgar Allan Poe. As stated by François Lesure, in the eyes of Debussy, Henri Caplet possessed a "prodigious musical instinct".