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Claude Debussy

The first volume of Debussy's Images (this title might also serve as a generic commonplace which could usefully be applied to almost any of Debussy's works) for piano solo was published in 1905. The set comprises of three pieces entitled respectively "Reflets dans l'eau," "Hommage à Rameau," and finally "Mouvement." Of the first piece, wrote the composer, it represented "the most recent discoveries of harmonic chemistry," which was indeed no idly hyperbolic claim. Behind the flashing arpeggios and shimmering chordal progressions the music somehow loses its focus, much as one's eyes seem to dilate after gazing intently at an object for any length of time. It is an ingenious agglomeration of whole-tone progressions and endlessly varied pentatonic and chromatic figurations. While the most sonorous climaxes of "Reflets" mirror the powerful sea music of Debussy's opera Pelléas et Mélisande, the highly impressionistic nature of the coda, with its pattern of three descending notes (which are also heard at the very beginning of this first Image, giving it an overall cyclic unity, despite its harmonic ambiguity) is one of the most memorable and musically effective the composer ever attained.

Appropriately for a work which honors one of the great French "clavecinistes," the second piece of the set "Hommage à Rameau" takes the form of a slow, purposeful sarabande, albeit one which springs (suggests Dawes) "from a somewhat idealised eighteenth century world ... it is a belated funerary offering to one great composer written entirely in the idiom of another." It was composed at the time when Debussy was engaged in revising Rameau's Les Fêtes de Polymnie, and this study in majestic classical proportions suggests the high regard in which Debussy held Rameau's keyboard music. The listener will be struck particularly by the austerity and economy of the writing which, save for a few passing expressive up-swings, maintains a somber processional tread, based principally on triadic chords, throughout its entire duration.

The final section, "Mouvement," is a toccata-like exercise in physical animation at the keyboard. As Anthony Cross states, "with Debussy rhythm is frequently reduced to continual vibration, to permit the realisation of timbre effects." It is so here, for although the moto perpetuo torrent of notes seems unstoppable, the music is still rooted firmly to a number of immensely long pedal points which create a feeling of static harmony. Some writers have suggested links with the mawkish humor of Stravinsky's Petrushka -- puppets locked in violent dispute -- and perhaps the analogy is a good one, and it conveys powerfully the idea behind the music. It is perhaps suggestive of the frenzied flight of the bee in the honey pot-furious, but locked into an orbit from which there is no escape.

-- Michael Jameson, All Mjusic Guide