As it frequently happens, the label most commonly applied to an artist is that against which he or she resisted most. This may seem unfair, but is revealing. On the one hand, the artist’s malaise with a certain definition must be taken into account: in the end, it is he or she who knows best what kind of art is being made and the intentions behind it. On the other, however, it might be that the artist’s feeling is too subjective, and that the perspective from which the rest of the world sees his or her artistry is not entirely wrong.
This applies very clearly to Claude Debussy, and in particular to the works recorded here. If there is such a thing as Impressionism in music, undeniably this is it. Comparisons between different artistic spheres are, to be sure, always risky and imprecise – and this may be one reason why Debussy was fiercely against being called a musical Impressionist. But, at the same time, undeniably our perception of the world is multisensorial, and, moreover, Debussy’s music takes particular delight precisely in crossing the boundaries between sight and listening, the visual and the aural. Not by chance, all but one of the pieces recorded in this Da Vinci Classics album bear titles suggestive of visualisation: Images, and “Prints” (Estampes).
If we consider some of the most original traits of Impressionism in the visual arts, they are all found – with obvious “translations” from visual to aural – in Debussy’s music. The Impressionists were fond of nature and of open-air painting: Debussy’s music frequently takes inspiration from outdoor scenes and natural imagery. The Impressionists’ art refused realism and photographic precision, in favour of suggestions and effectiveness: Debussy denies the “narrative” aspect of music in favour of effects. The Impressionists achieved this result by abandoning the extreme refinement of detailed painting; Debussy left back the traditional processes of tonal harmony, grounded on the dialectics between tension (dissonance) and distension (consonance), and which generate the dynamism on which the narrative dimension of music is founded. He chose to adopt successions of chords, frequently in parallel motion, whereby the rules of functional harmony are subverted in favour of non-teleological, non-purposeful effects. The Impressionists objected to the presence of a contour line; Debussy affirmed the beauty of timbre when contrasting, and in principle incompatible harmonies, are superimposed to each other, either by being played together or by allowing them to resonate while the preceding is still sounding. The Impressionists achieved some of their most memorable results when studying the effects of light and water, and of the combination of the two – not by chance, the movement took its name, which originally was conceived as disparaging, from Impression: Sunrise by Claude Monet, which represents precisely morning light on a watery surface. Water is mobile, mutable; it is found in a variety of situations, from the calm, transparent water in a bowl or glass to the majestic and powerful movements of gigantic tsunami waves, such as that etched by Hokusai and reproduced on the titlepage of Debussy’s La mer. Water also mirrors (in a literal sense) the mobility and fascination of light, which can give life to water, but also be broken and splintered by it in a thousand glistening fragments. Debussy wrote numerous works inspired by water scenes. He was not the first to do so, of course: among the most notable examples predating his works are Franz Liszt’s Les jeux d’eau à la villa d’Este, which can absolutely be counted as the forerunner of musical Impressionism, and Maurice Ravel’s Jeux d’eau, which was composed some time before Debussy’s masterpieces. With Debussy, the musical evocation of water reaches unheard-of levels. We have the transparent brilliancy of rain (as in Jardins sous la pluie), the roaring solemnity of waves (La mer or Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest), the mysterious depths of the Ocean (La cathédrale engloutie), the glittering light on a clear sea (as in Voiles or Reflets dans l’eau), but also the effects of movement within water itself, with the unequalled fluidity one experiences when surrounded by water (Poissons d’or). And these are but a very few of the many examples one could draw on for finding the manifold perspectives on the musical representation of water in Debussy. Indeed, Impressionist painters were struggling to achieve a feeling of movement on their canvases; they obtained this suggestion by blurring the edges, and juxtaposing tiny spots of contrasting colours, merging in the observer’s eye and thus creating fluidity. The task of the composer is easier, under this viewpoint, since music is by its nature “movement”; at the same time, Debussy wished to avoid the narrative component of movement, and thus had to find a way to be “static” (i.e., non-narrative) while also being constantly on the move.
These manifold challenges are observed in the works recorded in this CD, which describe the composer’s itinerary in quest of his own, very personal, and very original style. Debussy’s Images inédites (also known as Images oubliées), along with Nocturne (a short but intense piece, mirroring and revealing the influence of Frédéric Chopin), date from the first years of his compositional career. Indeed, the composer gave them the title of Images, which he would also employ for the two later piano cycles, also recorded here, and for the set of orchestral pieces by the same name. The adjectives “unpublished” or “forgotten” are later additions, which reveal the sad fate of this suite: it was set aside by the composer, left mainly unpublished, and unearthed only many decades after his death. They were written in 1894, when the composer was creating some of his earliest masterpieces, i.e. Pelléas et Mélisande (1893-5) and Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1892-4). They were dedicated to the young daughter of painter Henri Lerolle; the girl, Yvonne, was only seventeen at the time, and charmed the composer, who defined her as “Mélisande’s younger sister”. He delicately wrote: “May these Images by accepted by Mademoiselle Yvonne Lerolle with a little of the joy that I have in dedicating them to her”. This dedication was maintained when Sarabande, the only piece of the set to have been published during Debussy’s lifetime, appeared in print, as the attachment to a newspaper. On the autograph score (which later belonged to pianist Alfred Cortot), Debussy clearly saw the untimeliness of his style: “These pieces would fare poorly in the brilliantly lighted salons, where people who do not like music usually congregate. They are rather ‘conversations’ between the piano and one’s self; it is not forbidden furthermore to apply one’s small sensibility to them on nice rainy days”. And rainy days are in fact evoked in the last of the three pieces, by the long title of Several aspects of ‘Nous n’irons plus au bois’ because the weather is so unbearable. The piece quotes a children’s tune, which would also find its way in Jardins sous la pluie, from Estampes, in turn recorded here. Of these three pieces, the most interesting is the second, which in fact survived Debussy’s strict self-censorship – but only partially: as it stands here, it remained forgotten during the composer’s lifetime, but it was elaborated and modified, eventually finding its way in Pour le piano (1901).
Debussy’s fascination for the Baroque – which may seem an unexpected trait in an “Impressionist” composer – goes beyond the Sarabande from Images oubliées, and is a recurring aspect of his poetics. It is found, most notably, also in Hommage à Rameau from Images I. Debussy was particularly fond of Rameau’s music, which he contrasted with Gluck’s (to the latter’s detriment). While he does never attempt to realise a “fake Baroque”, his works reveal an attraction for the nobility and composure of a (probably fictive) Baroque atmosphere. Indeed, this represents the historical equivalent of his otherwise geographical exoticism, abundantly documented in the other pieces recorded here. Debussy famously affirmed that imagination is the way in which all can travel, even those who cannot afford it. So, we are explicitly brought to Far East with Pagodes, and to Spain in La soirée dans Grenade. Debussy “visited” Java by means of its music, which he heard at the Expo of 1889; Spain was the place of France’s dreams, as demonstrated by the expression “avoir un château en Espagne”, “to have a castle in Spain”. Manuel De Falla commented that Debussy’s Soirée has no actual quotes or elements which are “originally Spanish” (except, of course, the all-pervasive Habanera rhythm), but, at the same time, that he did perfectly capture the mood and feeling of “real” Spain.
Elements of exoticism are also found in other pieces recorded here, though. “Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut” has an enigmatic title, and musicologists have struggled in vain to identify the source of this line. It probably seduced Debussy for its literary beauty, and, seemingly, it was suggested to him by one of the three dedicatees of Images I, Louis Laloy, who was a close friend of the composer, but also a musicologist and an expert in the fields of Eastern music and ancient Greece. Seemingly, Laloy was also responsible for the title and inspiration of Cloches à travers les feuilles. In Laloy’s hometown, a small village in the Jura region, bells used to sound from dawn to dusk on All Saints’ Day; this habit was shared by other villages, and as a result the surrounding woods were pierced by the bells’ sounds. Exoticism also inspires Poissons d’or, dedicated to Ricardo Viñes who premiered the cycle: in this case, Debussy had not to look very far, since he owned a Japanese panel portraying two goldfishes in a stylised river.
The water effects so beautifully rendered in Poissons d’or are also found in the magnificent Reflets dans l’eau, while the demanding virtuosity required by Jardins sous la pluie matches that of both Reflets and especially Mouvement, a true etude with extremely original musical ideas.
Together, these works bring us into an “imaginary” (imagined, but also “imaged”) itinerary where sound becomes impression (pace Debussy himself), impression fascinates, and the fascination increases with every bar.
Chiara Bertoglio © 2022
He is currently Piano Adjunct Professor at “Conservatorio Giacomo Puccini” in Gallarate, Italy.
His artistic activity numbers several concerts in Italy and in Europe, at important prestigious musical institutions: "Conservatorio Giuseppe Verdi" in Milano, “Fryderyk
Chopin University of Music” in Warsaw, “Kammermusiksaal MHS” in Freiburg (Germany), “SIPO Piano Festival” in Obidos (Portugal), “Ravello Art Center” in Ravello, “Conservatorio G. Nicolini” in Piacenza, “Salone da Cemmo” in Brescia, “Auditorium Comunale” in Varese; “Teatro Bonoris” in Montichiari.
He received a Bachelor's Degree from “Conservatorio L. Campiani” in Mantova, and afterwards he obtained a Master's degree in pianoforte at “Conservatorio G. Nicolini” in Piacenza.
He also obtaineid bachelor's degree in science of cultural heritage -musicologist curriculum- at Università degli Studi “Statale”, Milano.
He improved his education attedding several masterclasses of important artists: Paul Badura-Skoda, Boris Berman, Roberto Plano, Roberto Prosseda, Andrea
Lucchesini, Massimiliano Damerini, Pietro de Maria.
Awarded in several competitions for piano solo and chamber duet: “Franz Schubert” Competition, Tadini International Music Competition, Città di Alessandria Competition, Moncalieri European Competition, Città Piove di Sacco Competition, Città di Riccione Competition, Albenga Piano Competition, Città di Lissone Piano Competition, Montichiari Piano Competition.
He currently releases music on the "Da Vinci Pubblishing”, a record label based in Osaka, Japan.
Claude Debussy: (b St Germain-en-Laye, 22 Aug 1862; d Paris, 25 March 1918). French composer. One of the most important musicians of his time, his harmonic innovations had a profound influence on generations of composers. He made a decisive move away from Wagnerism in his only complete opera Pelléas et Mélisande, and in his works for piano and for orchestra he created new genres and revealed a range of timbre and colour which indicated a highly original musical aesthetic.