26. Debussy: Interesting Items in “Ibéria” 2


In my last post we listened to and examined some novel techniques used by Claude Debussy in Par les rues et par les chemins, the first part of his triptych entitled Ibéria (1907). This post will look at some interesting functionality from the second and third movements.

Sudden Romance

The first example I’ve chosen from the second part of Ibéria, entitled Les parfums de la nuit, is a passage that shows how quickly and seamlessly Debussy can shift from a vaguely unsettled mood to a lush, romantic one. Listen to Example 26.1 and note how the mood changes dramatically after the first five seconds of the passage.

Example 26.1. Claude Debussy: Images – Ibéria. 2. Les parfums de la nuit (Measures 66-74)
Paul Paray, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Mercury Living Presence

The first and probably most obvious tool that M. Debussy uses is the crescendo. Note how the first measure (number 66 in the score) begins at a piano or pianissimo and the players crescendo to a mezzo-forte or forte in measure 67. The second tool is the change from a rather vague and partially whole-tone tonal center to a more traditional one, G-sharp minor (of course the chord is not a simple G-sharp minor triad, a G-sharp minor seventh comes closer its proper name. As with much Impressionist writing, traditional harmonic nomenclature and analysis is less useful than in a piece by, say, Mendelssohn.).

In addition, there are three elements in measure 67 that “sell” this change (i.e., make the change work). The first is the entrance of the first violin section in octaves with a melody in their upper register. Except for the harp there is no other movement; the winds and strings simply sustain the chord. Now, for the harp and its glissando, which is a simple pentatonic scale, Debussy employs this common technique used by the Impressionists and others of the time. Pentatonic harmony provides a richness, but concurrently a vagueness of a tonal center. Among many other examples in the canon, we saw Gustav Holst use it in the Jupiter movement of his suite The Planets. (See the post from April 29, 2014, entitled “The Bringer of Jollity and Orchestral “Shimmer.'”)

The third element is simply filling in the sonic range of the orchestra. Note that for the two measures before the first violins make their entrance in measure 67, the lowest note sounded is small B-flat by the solo horn.

As mentioned above, to change the timbre and add to this shift of mood, all the woodwinds except the flutes enter and sustain G-sharp minor seventh chord as do the strings, which along with the cellos have the low G-sharp (in octaves, as is tradition). Another small but potent addition to the tone is the entrance of the second violins playing their half-note F-sharps. The downbeat then becomes two octaves of the minor third, F-sharp – A. Of course, the melody immediately moves to the high B as if the A were an appoggiatura, but the entrance on the very familiar minor third adds to the romantically pleasing sound of the measure.

But just as suddenly as the introduction of the romance began, Debussy changes the mood again. In measure 69 he brings in the cellos in treble clef and after the triplet has them join the oboes, horns and the second violins in the slow chromatic run harmonized below with major thirds. Once this run is over at the end of measure 70, the harp enters joined by several instruments over the course of its ascending climb from a great A-sharp to a one-line F-sharp. This “behind the scenes” run plays background support for the violin echo of the pattern they introduced in measure 67 beginning with the appoggiatura. It provides an intimate sound and a romantic transition to the emptier sound of just the oboe and clarinets in measure 73.

More Romance

For this next example we have a passage from a bit later in the same movement. The music just prior to this example has some roiling and is busy with its variety of moving parts. Once we arrive at the end of the 2/4 measure we see how Debussy again shifts the mood. The clarinets, bassoons and horns fill the ensuing measures with the murmuring chordal background, reminiscent of the steady movement of water. This technique is used commonly for the inference of movement. (Perhaps it could be at least partially considered the orchestral equivalent of the Alberti bass.)

Along with the clarinets and bassoons on the downbeat of the measure we have the sustained harp chord and sustained contrabasses. All of this is behind the kind of melodic-harmonic technique we heard in last week’s post when the trombones had a passage, duplicated in the woodwinds, that was harmonized in triads. Here Debussy gives us the three trumpets on a similar line, but with the melody (or at least the top line) played by the piccolos, the bottom trumpet and most interestingly two soli violins and two soli cellos. Although not in an extreme range, the four lines have little competition for the melody in the remainder of the strings. It’s a piece of dramatic scoring that does not draw attention to itself, but makes a romantic and full song out of a melody that gives us the impression that we are in Spain.

Example 26.2. Claude Debussy: Images – Ibéria. 2. Les parfums de la nuit (Measures 90-97)
Paul Paray, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Mercury Living Presence

Because this melody has sustained tones on the second downbeat of the measures in the passage, Debussy uses the harp to do the rhythmic clarity honors and to provide the downbeats for the next two measures. Typically the harp adds to the pallet of color and passion in this example. When the three double reeds enter in measure 96, the horns and the harp are there to blur both the line and the harmonies. It’s another subtle touch that the composer uses to maintain the interest of the listener as well as to enhance the previously presented material.

And while it’s difficult to get away from the harp in most Debussy orchestral writing, note that the harp effects are used with prudence. This is a good reminder for all to be subtle when writing for the harp. It’s easy to overuse its distinctive effects.

Night’s Romance Cedes to the Dawn

The next example is the last, dying measures of Les parfums de la nuit. As such it is a perfect transition from the enchantment of a perfume-scented night and the sunrise on a busy, festival day. In fact, we hear both moods in the last few measures. For the main but ebbing melody the bassoon temporarily joins the solo flute and solo violin, both marked to play softly.

There’s nothing surprising about a composer/orchestrator removing instruments to indicate to an audience that the end is near. Think about the infamous Repeat and Fade in so much pop music. We’ve examined other similar approaches over the course of the past several months. (And though it has not been presented here, if they’ve ever attended a performance of it, most cannot forget Haydn’s eponymous Farewell Symphony and the image of each musician putting out the flame illuminating his stand.) The trick for a composer who is not through with the work is to provide the audience with a notion that, like so many online infomercials, “Wait, there’s more!”

Example 26.3. Claude Debussy: Images – Ibéria. 2. Les parfums de la nuit (Measures 124-131)
Paul Paray, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Mercury Living Presence

So at this point Debussy has given us an impression of what’s happening on the Spanish streets in the first part and the exotic scents of the night in this second part. Now he is about to launch into a new movement that will excite our desire for adventure and gaiety with the events on the morning of the day of a festival. Let’s examine how he accomplishes this, in two rich measures, just as the night is ending.

From a basic tonal viewpoint, the contrabasses and contrabassoon move the bottom of the orchestra up a half step from F-sharp to G, while a horn, the timpani and cellos maintain the sustained C-sharp giving us a vague unease because of the tritone. In tonal and tonal-like music the tritone will generally increase the angst of the listener. To compound this he has the violas tremolo major thirds on each beat with a cello playing their lower line.

The introduction of chimes (church bells) to alert the town to the day’s festivities is done on the offbeats of the two measures. This is a natural sound. By their very nature, church bells have a tendency to ring at their own pace. It’s barely possible to consistently make them sound when you’d like.

To add to the mix, we have two horns giving a reflection of the appoggiatura on the third beat of each measure. If you remember in the first part of Ibéria, Par les rues et par les chemins, we had the two horns playing grace notes in opposite directions. Debussy brings this same effect back here just as he’s reminded us of other familiar sounds from this movement and the previous one. In fact, in the next measure the trumpet echos a now familiar melody. while the other sounds are duplicated from the previous measure.

Once this transitory and prescient passage is over, Debussy gives us almost the same sound as measures 124-126. The one item missing is the bassoon duplicating the melody. Now it is only the two solos instruments, flute and violin, as the movement ends.

Building the Excitement

The excitement of the opening of the next movement belies the dying of the evening. I recommend you listen to it. Wisely, Debussy chooses to introduce a new rhythm, but keeping it soft and not jarring from the last of the night. Let’s face it, even on festival mornings – or maybe especially on festival mornings – getting a few extra minutes of sleep is not a bad thing. Therefore, he gives us a bit of time to wake up to the excitement of the day.

Example 26.4. Claude Debussy: Images – Ibéria. 3. Le matin d’un jour de fêtes (Measures 28-41)
Paul Paray, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Mercury Living Presence

I’d like to focus on the passage beginning at measure 28. This begins with trills in the winds, but note that we’ve been hearing these trills throughout the orchestra for more than a few measures. In fact, to tone down the excitement (No one wants to peak too early on a festival day; it’s important to pace oneself!), Debussy has the trills diminish in volume so they can then crescendo to a climax in at measure 33.

For composers and orchestrators who’ve not scored much for strings note the use of the strings beginning in measure 29, notated quasi Guitara, “like a guitar.” For both the violins and the violas the indication is for the performers to play sous le bras, “below the arm.” This effect, strumming the instrument like a guitar, changes the timbre for all the string sections using it. Debussy here divides all the strings into two sections, halves of the first and second violins, the violas, and the cellos are strumming their chords and the other halves are playing the sixteenth note chords arco. Although splitting a string section in half reduces the total volume of sound, here it also provides two very different timbres to create distinct sounds from a phonically homogeneous ensemble.

In the winds Debussy gives the players each a bar of trill and a bar of rest, with a crescendo notated in each part. These culminate on the concert C on the downbeat of measure 33 when they are joined by the lower bassoons, the brass and the timpani. And one last, small detail to note here is the second (G – A) being played by the timpani and the contrabasses for the four bar crescendo. It’s one of those sounds that most listeners may not hear and would probably be noticed only by side-by-side comparison, i.e., have the orchestra play it with this second and then have them play just the G. Nevertheless, the second is one of those intervals that creates tension and requires resolution, a perfect use in this passage.

We have the entire day of festival in front of us and Debussy doesn’t want to give it all away too soon. So, after the previous 27 measures of the town waking up until this part of the example with the guitar sound, we finally get to a resolution, if temporary, on the downbeat of measure 33. At this point we have two measures of subdominant, then dominant and finally tonic in the key of G with just the strings, all playing pizzicato. This only lasts until the bidirectional chromatic lines in measure 37.

At this point Debussy has a measure of an ascending, long chromatic run, harmonized in major thirds in the woodwinds. The strings have a descending line, also chromatic with complete chords moving from A-flat down to E, only to “resolve” in C major beginning on the downbeat of the next measure.

This last pattern sets up the rhythm for much of the remainder of the movement. Note how Debussy backs off the orchestra. This new rhythm is played only by violas and cellos with the castanets and tambourine providing a bit of percussive support.

After all the excitement of the opening of the movement, the trills, the guitar and the chromaticism, we have finally arrived at the full impact of the morning of the festival day.

Debussy is always a surprising, innovative and extremely detailed orchestrator. Understandably, I’ve only touched the surface of his orchestration in this post. I recommend that anyone interested listen to the entire triptych entitled Ibéria.

In my next post: a little more Debussy (not from Ibéria) and a work of one of his British contemporaries.

Please let me know if you have questions.


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