25. Debussy: Interesting Items in “Ibéria” 1


Lumping Debussy and Ravel together is as common as it is logical. They are certainly the most well known composers of the French Impressionists. Nevertheless there is almost a generation separating the two. As a young man, Maurice Ravel was more a student of Claude Debussy than an actual contemporary.

Among other works, over the last few months we’ve listened to examples of scoring techniques from Ravel, especially from his famous orchestration of Modeste Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition. I will be returning to Pictures at some point, but for the next several posts, we’ll be exploring some of the writing of his senior fellow Frenchman, specifically Ibéria.

To put the work in perspective, Debussy wrote Ibéria in 1907 and at this point in his career, he’d already written Suite Bergamasque, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, and Pelléas et Mélisande. Other contemporaries were involved in their own pursuits. Mahler had recently written his eighth symphony, dealing with Viennese antisemitism and his fears of writing a ninth symphony as well as the tragic death of a child. Stravinsky was studying with Rimsky-Korsakov and composing. Delius wrote A Village Romeo and Juliet. Vaughan Williams was spending some time in Paris studying with Ravel. Elgar was working on his first symphony. Scott Joplin went to New York looking for a producer for Treemonisha. Sibelius wrote his third symphony. And Albéniz was developing his own Ibéria (for piano).

When “Impressionism” is taught, there’s an understandable tendency to focus on the French painters of the second half of the nineteenth century. The paintings are so noticeably different than paintings of the Romantics, it makes sense to do so. Music, as an art that takes place in time (i.e., a performance medium), is perhaps more difficult to examine and dissect. It is not easy for a music teacher to point to something and say “Hear that? That’s an Impressionist technique.”

Ibéria: 1. Par les rues et par les chemins

In the first movement of this three-part work based on his impressions of Spain, Debussy introduces the audience to some new sounds. The rhythm of the orchestra dallies between the use of two eighth notes in a beat as well as three eighth notes in a beat. In fact, the time signature is sometimes notated as 2/4 = 12/16. This is a reasonable time signature if you want to provide a vague sense of meter. Similarly, using triads, especially as they support a melody, is another way to offer the audience a polytonal guide to Spain.

If the melody and rhythm are purposefully being manipulated to give a brief image of something, why should the orchestration be excused from participation? In one section Debussy employs a trio of trombones to sing the melody as triads. Although it’s duplicated at the octave by oboes, English horn and clarinets, the sound most apparent to an audience is the “liquid” trombone part. In the scores I examined there were indications telling the performer to slide between the last two notes of the two-measure passage. In this recording the trombones use this technique in a few places, not just as indicated at the end.

But before we get to this luxurious trombone sound, it may be important for the listener to hear what precedes it. The upper woodwinds continue their play with the two measure jig-like phrase that you can see in the clarinets first in measures 206-207 of Example 25.1, although the phrase is easier to hear played by the flutes and oboes in measures 208-209. This is rhythmically accompanied by the timpani, snare drum, and two harps. The pizzicato violins also enhance the rhythm for the first eight measures and the trombones sustain background harmonies behind all of these playful ideas.

Example 25.1. Claude Debussy: Images – Ibéria, 1. Par les rues et par les chemins (Measures 206-216)
Paul Paray, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Mercury Living Presence

What predominates the passage, though, are the horns, violas, and cellos playing the long melodic line, which the bassoons join after the first three measures. This line, containing snippets of other melodies in the piece, builds for these first eight measures until the first violins enter with it in measure 214. Upon their entrance this single unison (or at the octave) line is harmonized in mostly major thirds.

Because this sound is the culmination of the previous unison line, the listener may suddenly question the tonal center. Putting a second voice a major third below the melody can have that effect, even with all the other “stuff” going on concurrently. Note too that these thirds are played in the two-line octave by the violins, the one-line octave by the bassoons, horns, violas and cellos. This lower melody line is placed such that the horn range is strong and ariose, contributing to the richness of the sound, quite different from the line in the previous measures.

Example 25.2. Claude Debussy: Images – Ibéria, 1. Par les rues et par les chemins (Measures 216-227)
Paul Paray, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Mercury Living Presence

Orchestral music of the nineteenth century is generally quite exacting. Unless it is written as a solo, it requires a performer to play in a regulated manner with other members of the orchestra. Here we have three trombones playing as a section, but with a sound that is evocative of the jazz bands of several decades later.

For these two passages, Debussy drops most of the rest of the orchestra. The horns and tuba sustain a perfect fifth (E-flat – B-flat) and the percussion along with the harps continue to provide a soft rhythm. The only other action is the pizzicato strings with a slow syncopated pattern, partly supporting some of the chords of the trombones and woodwinds. Given the slow long lines in the lower winds and upper strings that precede the trombone soli as well as the quick piccolos and flutes on their double-time melody, the trombones sing out like a guitar lick in an string orchestra. They’re exotic, romantic, and like liquid in their smoothness.

Unclear and Downright Messy Downbeats

In a very general sense, Impressionism focuses on an image as glimpsed briefly. One of the things that happens when you get a brief glimpse of an image is that there are no clean lines, the borders between areas with or without deep colors tend to be blurred.

The composer may choose to employ this blurred image by shifting chords and even melodies to give the listener a hint of what might normally be clear cut. In terms of rhythm, making a downbeat somewhat fuzzy will have the same effect. We see this in Example 25.3. This is also from the same movement of Ibéria 1. Par les rues et par les chemins, where after a return to the rhythmic triple meter Debussy rapidly goes from crisp clear downbeats to those that are much fuzzier.

Example 25.3. Claude Debussy: Images – Ibéria, 1. Par les rues et par les chemins (Measures 268-280)
Paul Paray, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Mercury Living Presence

At the end of the introduction to the return of the melody, Debussy gives us the triple rhythms with tambourine, bassoons and horns (Measure 268). This is immediately followed by three measures of all the strings except the basses playing downbows on each eighth note. Each downbow requires the performer to pick the bow off the string to prepare for the next downbow. The effect of this is to have space between each chord, essentially making each one of the nine eighth notes separate and accented because of these downbows.

To further emphasize the effect, Debussy has the trumpets and the trombones play staccato chords on the downbeats of the second and third measures, simultaneously removing the percussion except for the timpani. No sooner are we absolutely certain of the exact placement of the downbeat than the composer throws us a curve, actually more than one, to make the downbeat placement a little blurry. See Example 25.3.

The most obvious is the appoggiatura in the first and third horn parts. Note that the chords themselves are clusters, similar to other effects in the piece (G major chords with an added A). What makes the ear notice them are the bidirectional appoggiaturas. The first horn’s notes are (in concert) D and G to A. The third horn plays A and G to D, the same notes, but in retrograde. The effect is that the audience hears a messy burst of sound on the downbeat so that the exact line between “not yet the downbeat” and “the downbeat” is blurred.

Adding to this feeling are the upper string pizzicatos. Each of the violins plays a two-note chord while the violas play a three-note chord. By the very nature of a string instrument playing multiple notes pizzicato the strings will each sound at slightly different milliseconds. Doing this with thirty or forty performers will understandably have a “messy” attack.

One other item that Debussy brings in on these downbeats is the tambourine, another instrument that is difficult to attack sharply. The array of essentially small cymbals that line the drum of the tambourine will make some sound both before and after the attack. This effect, added to the horn appoggiaturas and the string pizzicatos make these downbeats about as blurry as a composer can write. And that is the key here for a composer or orchestrator. How can a score be notated in such a way that the performance will be as much in his or her control as possible? How can he assure that a performance 100 years from now will sound as much as possible the way he wants it to sound?

One last item in this example is not what is there, but what is not. Notice that on these downbeats played by the horns, tambourine and strings, there are no other instruments. The contrabasses, typically a “downbeat” instrument, play on two and three of each measure. In fact, even the timpani has been relegated to offbeats, duplicating the contrabasses. So, by omitting any other sharp sound, Debussy ensures that the downbeats are played only in a blurry manner.

Example 25.4. Claude Debussy: Images – Ibéria, 1. Par les rues et par les chemins (Measures 268-280)
Andre Previn, London Symphony Orchestra, EMI

I’ve included an additional example of the same passage. This one is conducted by Andre Previn with the London Symphony Orchestra. Previn takes the tempos slower and extends some of the rubatos. The horn grace notes are much more precise, a somewhat dramatic difference of style from that of Paul Paray. Yet, the same fuzziness of the sound is maintained by Debussy’s striking orchestration technique.

Next week we’ll continue exploring Ibéria. After examining more of the noticeably novel techniques of the work, we’ll stay with the same letter of the alphabet.

Please let me know if you have questions.


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