D flat major, and a perfect 5th is quietly sounded in the bass register of the piano, like a pebble dropped into a still pool. And as the reflections in the water refract and distort while ripples disturb the surface, so a series of chords rises and falls above the sustained bass note, with three tenor notes floating in the middle of the texture.
Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau, from Images I, is almost a lesson in how to translate water into music, not in the sense of fountains or the sea, but rather swirling eddies, sparkling ripples, glistening droplets. It is about shades of colour, nuance, and the play of light.
That’s not a very analytical description, but this impressionistic marvel defies conventional analysis. Restrained in dynamics, only a very few bars request f or ff for a surging climax, after which all subsides. While studying this piece with Roy Shepherd, who studied it with Cortot, there were certain arpeggiated octaves towards the end which I was told to arpeggiate down rather than up, and one chord was given an added note which I was assured had been sanctioned by the composer…
The second Image, Hommage à Rameau, was possibly inspired by Rameau’s opera, Castor et Pollux. A modern revival of the first two acts was performed in Paris in 1903; Debussy was in the audience, and wrote a review. He was also one of the editors for Rameau’s complete works, published by Durand.
Lent et Grave, dans le style d’une Sarabande mais sans rigueur, the opening modal melody turns back the aural clock. Triplets give flow, double dotted quavers give a rhythmic edge, and changing metres gently wrong-foot this non-diatonic Sarabande, with three low G sharps signalling the end of the first section.
Above that pedal point, the harmony grows ever more adventurous, calling for handfuls of double sharps; at the au Mouvt a new ostinato figure enters in the bass, soon adopted in the RH as well, and the harmonic foundation moves to a low D. Above it, En Animant, the Sarabande begins to sway dangerously, rocking back and forth with syncopated chords above the LH’s stabilising ostinato figure. The harmonic anchor moves again, and then resettles as the ff climax is reached, garnished by a six octave flourish across the white keys.
The final section reminds us of the opening material, but then an unexpected, magical harmonic shift moves us to a C sharp major chord and beyond as the music prepares to cadence. Descending chords bring us finally to rest in the home key of G sharp minor.
Mouvement – now there’s an appropriate title for this third Image, which buzzes constantly, like a hovering insect. Animé, avec une légèreté fantasque mais précise, the pulse is set, pp, and then – plus pp – the RH starts the whirring triplets which last throughout, the hands trying to nudge each other out of the way as the pulse switches back and forth between them. The challenge is to keep it all quiet until the relief of a sudden f outburst, the pulsating quavers now leaping an octave, sometimes replaced by snatches of fanfare-style melody.
Until now, the music has been in the fairly benign region of C major, but that couldn’t last, could it … Suddenly the hands plunge into contrary motion triplets laced with accidentals, creating excursions to far-off, luscious tonal fields, the melody projected by the RH 5th finger. And all ppp…
And then the acrobatics begin, the melody shared in chords between the hands, surrounded by perilous leaping octave intervals, above and below. En augmentant towards the climax, a dim. molto – and a return to the pulsating whirring heard at the start, which gradually whirrs out of earshot at the end.
Images I date from 1904-1905; equally rewarding are the three pieces of Images II, especially the mercurial Poissons d’or.