At the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1889, Debussy had witnessed a Javanese gamelan orchestra, with its metallic percussion instruments and rhythmically hypnotic music. The pentatonic flavour of Pagodes, the first of the Estampes, may not be strictly Javanese, but the impression of differently pitched metallic percussion instruments is well conveyed. At the opening, low 5ths colour the bass, a syncopated, off-beat chordal pulse is introduced in the middle register, and a melodic, decorative figure oscillates around the black keys above, délicatement et presques sans nuances. The main theme is in octaves, again pentatonic, but the music ventures at times away from the black keys to add a few pungent harmonies and unexpected raised 4ths. Gradually the rhythmic complexity grows, with triplets and later demisemiquavers used to adorn the slower moving themes; a ‘back and forth’ pattern over two notes brings to mind the gamelan players, seated at their instruments, striking metallophones with small hammers.
It is an evocative piece, in B major with its five sharps conveniently located on the piano providing the pentatonic haze; a performance has to have at times the resonance of a gong, at times the brilliance of a glockenspiel, and always the burnish of polished metal. Exotic and oriental, the title Pagodes tells us that were are in the East, without being too geographically specific; the music takes us there instantly. Here is Richter:
And then – to Spain in the second of the Estampes, La soirée dans Grenade. Debussy’s first-hand experience of Spain was negligible at that time, but he immediately conjures up the country by using the persuasive Habenera dance rhythm to open the piece – softly and subtly. It insinuates itself into our consciousness with its quiet insistence on a repeated C sharp in different registers; around it circles a languid, Moorish arabesque, with nasal augmented 2nds, and a nagging semitone pulling against the tonal centre, occasionally interrupted by muttering semiquavers and a whole-tone based passage. Debussy writes Commencer lentement dans un rythme nonchalamment gracieux at the beginning, but later Très rythmé in a brightly lit A major as the dance comes out of the shadows, ff, with the click of castanets and the stamping of feet.
Tempo rubato, expressif, for six bars of whole-tone colour, before the C sharp is used to turn the tonal direction of the dance, this time to the radiance of F sharp major, avec plus d’abandon, with a swooping, curvaceous melodic line. Back to material heard previously, before the ubiquitous Spanish guitar makes a brief appearance, Léger et lointain, quickly strummed; a final reminder of the Moorish melody, the muttering semiquavers and the Habanera rhythm bring the piece to an end. Intoxicating.
Here is Richter:
The third and final Estampe is closer to home for Debussy; the rain-soaked gardens of Jardins sous la pluie theoretically could be anywhere, but he incorporates two French folk tunes: the lullaby Do, do, l’enfant do and Nous n’irons plus au bois. Net et vif, the rain drums relentlessly, the wind howls chromatically, a mysterious lull and the folk melodies offer moments of respite. The sun breaks through, éclatant, once the tonality has shifted from minor to major, en animant jusqu’a la fin.
Here is Gieseking:
A casual look at Estampes might lead to the conclusion that the pieces are a random selection, but the distinctive musical features of each one create sound pictures of three locations; three ‘Prints’, as the title suggests.
YouTube has many videos of Javanese and Balinese gamelans, and recordings of the French songs. Recordings of La soirée dans Grenade include one by Ricardo Viñes, Debussy’s friend. Very enlightening, too, are the wonderful videos of Maria Callas singing Bizet’s Habanera from his opera Carmen. (The version sung by The Muppets, however, is best avoided.)