I. “Par les rues et par les chemins” (“In the Streets and By-ways”)
II. “Les Parfums de la nuit” (“The Fragrance of the Night”)
III. “Le matin d’un jour de fete” (“The Morning of the Festival Day”)
It was for years the custom of critics to designate Debussy as a tonal impressionist and harmonist of peculiar sensitivity, and, having thus pigeonholed his style, turn complacently to other matters. They had not learned, or they had chosen to forget, that this most fastidious of workmen was deeply averse to saying the same thing twice, and that lie was always seeking new aspects of beauty.
In “La Mer” (1905) Debussy had attempted and succeeded in an expression which marked the possible limits of impressionism. Composing “Iberia” (1909), he turned from this method to a harder and more precise style. He remains the tone-painter and worshiper of nature, but his manner of coloring is now that of the “pointillistes,” who painted with a multitude of fine points rather than with free brush strokes and manipulations of color. The score of “Iberia” is very detailed and exact if examined closely, and in its development it is the most symphonically conceived of all Debussy’s orchestral pieces. But stand off a little from this tong-picture. Listen from a distance: the sum of its details will be atmosphere and color planes of vivid and exotic hue.
The work is also a triumphant vindication of Debussy’s purposes in that, despite the employment of symphonic devices, it is admirably free of convention; of the German school. Nowhere did he more conclusively than in “Iberia” expounce doctrine of development which liberated and followed the inner urge of the musical idea itself, instead of forcing that idea into a preordained channel. And never had he been more close-knit in the exposition of his thought.
How much happens in these three pieces! How logical their sequence and melodic relations to each other! The poetical scheme is the thought of the day, with its light and movement giving place to the perfumed and mysterious night, and the night leading, in turn, to the break of dawn, the stirrings of life, and the brilliancy and commotion of the Fair. In the first movement basic motives are laid down with the finest coordination and craftsmanship. The piece opens with a flourish of pulsatile instruments and pizzicato strings, with certain scintillating accompaniment figures, and a shrill ditty played in the reedy register of the clarinets. This scrap of melody might sound from any corner or roadside of the Spanish land. It returns in many and astonishing transformations in later pages. So, for that matter, does other thematic material laid down as part of the ground plan of the score. Confused calls and sounds are borne forward on robust rhythms, and seem to ring and intermingle in the clear air. The end of this movement is especially poetical. It is shadowed and vague like the falling evening and the melancholy distances of the sky.
The second movement is the apostrophe to the summer night of the exhaling flowers, the soughing breezes and the “large few stars.” Free preluding introduces a habanera figure whose derivation can be traced back to the first movement. The motive pervades the orchestra. The instruments create a moonlit haze of tone and from far away sounds a horn with the melody of a tender song which is but another transformation of the clarinet motive: of the opening. A recurring harmonic suspension is aquiver with the night’s magic. There are effects of an unprecedented and inexplicable beauty. Who, for example, would suppose that the in termittent cluck of a xylophone would have anything to do with the spell and the passion of a summer night? It has precisely this potency at the hands of Debussy. Ife uses different scale formations, and there is a passage as chromatic as Wagner. The transporting song of the horn now sweeps passionately in muted strings. A hush falls upon the orchestra, and from far away sounds the faint tolling of bells…. The morning breaks. The orchestra flashes color, and one hears the plunking of guitars. Shrill wind-instruments add their notes. An amusing episode comes when, with another thematic transformation, the first violin, solo, saws extravagantly, for all the world as some fakir or mountebank might fiddle and clown it for a group that hailed the performance with shouts of laughter. All is song, rhythm, sun. A master holds out both hands to life.