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Program Note: Debussy’s Ibéria

(Instrumentation: piccolo, 3 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, 3 bassoons, contra- bassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (castanets, chimes, snare drum, tambourine, xylophone), 2 harps, celesta, strings)

Claude Debussy

(Born in St.-Germain-en-Laye, France in 1862; died in Paris in 1918)

Ibéria, from Images for Orchestra, L. 122

  1. Par les rues et par les chemins (“In the Streets and Byways”)
  2. Les parfums de la nuit (“Perfumes of the Night”)
  3. Le matin d’un jour de fête (“The Morning of a Festival Day”)

Just on the heels of his symphonic suite, La Mer, in 1905, Debussy began a new three-movement orchestral work entitled Images for OrchestraImages’s central movement, Ibéria, celebrates the essence of Spain, and as the suite’s most popular movement, Ibéria is often performed alone.  Debussy composed his impressionistic Iberian homage with little direct experience of Spain, but by instead relying on books and the musical expertise of his Spanish musician friends.  And indeed, Ibéria uncannily evokes a dreamy and dancing world drenched in Spanish scents and flavors, infused with the essence of Spanish folk tunes, Moorish-influenced melodies, and Spanish dance rhythms.

Ibéria itself is also cast in three movements.  The first movement, “In the Streets and Byways,” opens with a loud stomp from the full orchestra, followed by lustily dancing winds and castanets in rapid triplet patterns, flamenco-style.  Within a few bars, two clarinets play the major theme of the movement, light-hearted and energetic.  Musical vignettes appear and vanish around corners, like the fleet fanfare and march at about three minutes into the movement.  And magically throughout, Debussy creates a kaleidoscope of timbre and energy through ever-changing colors and rhythms.  The movement winds down, becoming lazy and sleepy, with the percussion having the last, quiet words.

A brief pause, and then “Perfumes of the Night,” the second movement, emerges like the scent of night flowers, directed to be played “slow and dreamy.”  Oboes and flutes waft beneath high-pitched notes held in the strings.  The harp and celeste add luminous glints of color, and then a solo oboe begins to sing, like a quietly hummed lullaby, at about two minutes.  Melodies, some folk-sounding, another recalling the clarinet theme from the first movement, rustle amidst nighttime sounds, like the beautifully eerie glissandos in the upper violins, until faint church bells begin to wake up the world.

Without pause, the third movement, “The Morning of a Festival Day,” begins as a dance with driving rhythms in the lower strings.  Soon, the violins and violas are directed to strum their instruments like guitars.  About a minute later, a lone street fiddler wanders into the merry-making.  As themes from the previous movements reappear, these happy minglings of musical jubilance conclude with a quick and glorious explosion of energy.

Program note by © Max Derrickson