Debussy’s Images of 1894

From Roy Howat’s annotations to vol. 2 of the Tall Poppies Debussy Series on CD (TP123):

Debussy’s piano Images of 1894 survive in a manuscript Debussy dedicated to Yvonne, the adolescent daughter of his painter friend Henry Lerolle. (This same young lady was respectively photographed and painted at the piano by Degas and Renoir.) Dating from the same time as the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and the first draft of Pelléas et Mélisande, the three pieces reveal Debussy already confidently mature at the piano. Early in 1896 the central piece was printed in a newspaper, with the promise that all three Images were about to be published; for reasons unknown this never happened. Not until 1977 was the complete suite published, as Images (oubliées), a title devised to prevent confusion with the two official sets of piano Images published in 1905 and 1907.

In an elegantly affectionate preface Debussy describes the pieces as “not for brilliantly lit salons … but rather conversations between the piano and oneself.” This customised commentary for the young Yvonne Lerolle continues above the second Image: “In saraband tempo, that is, solemn and slow, even a bit like an old portrait, souvenir of the Louvre, etc…” In turn the third piece is headed, “Some aspects of the song ‘Nous n’irons plus au bois’, because the weather is dreadful”. Above the piece’s central avalanche of arpeggios Debussy continues the badinage: “Here the harps imitate to perfection peacocks spreading their tails – or the peacocks imitate harps (as you like it!) and the sky cheers up again in summer clothing.”

For sheer expressive beauty the untitled opening piece is almost unsurpassed in Debussy’s output, and its closing cadence echoes the end of Act 1 Scene 1 of Pelléas et Mélisande (as well as foreshadowing the end of “La soirée dans Grenade”). After it comes an early and somewhat lusher version of the “Sarabande” that reappeared in 1901 in the suite Pour le piano; the differences between the two versions are well summed up by the different modal colours and richer textures in the first eight bars of the 1894 version. Émile Vuillermoz has described how Debussy played this Sarabande “with the easy simplicity of a good dancer from the sixteenth century”, and Debussy’s stepdaughter recalled how he used to emphasise the characteristic sarabande “lift” in the piece’s second bar.

The final Image shares its mood, its toccata texture and its use of the French nursery song “Nous n’irons plus au bois” with Debussy’s later Estampe “Jardins sous la pluie”; otherwise, though, the earlier piece is quite different, for its opening theme relates it to Debussy’s String Quartet of 1893, and its last pages imitate a clanging bell with harmonic oppositions that suggest Debussy’s lifelong enthusiasm for Musorgsky. Above this passage Debussy completed his commentary for Yvonne Lerolle by writing “A bell that keeps no beat” (not entirely true in musical terms), followed by the gruff remark above the closing bars, “Enough of the bell!”

These Images are published by Theodore Presser as Images (oubliées), and as Images (1894) in series 1 vol. 2 of the Œuvres Complètes de Claude Debussy, edited by Roy Howat.

© 1999, Roy Howat / Tall Poppies Records.