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Paul Roberts will perform Images Books I and II and discuss the relationship between Debussy’s music and the revolutionary visual art of his period: How valid is the term Impressionism in relation to music?
Images as a musical concept, not just a title, occupied Debussy for much of his creative life. Apart from the two great sets of Images for piano and the Images for orchestra, there is a pictorial dimension in other major works, most notably La Mer (for which Debussy insisted on a design for the front cover based on Hokusai’s coloured print The Great Wave off Kanagawa), the orchestral Nocturnes (after Whistler), Estampes (Prints) and even the late two-piano work En blanc et noir, which might be seen as etchings in black and white (after Goya). Debussy lived at a period in which many artists were absorbed with the relation between music and visual art: ‘Colour is vibration just as music is,’ proclaimed Paul Gauguin.
It is well attested that Debussy had a highly developed visual imagination. ‘I love pictures almost as much as music,’ he said. He first used the term Images in 1894 as the title for a modest set of piano pieces dedicated to the daughter of his close friend, the painter Henri Lerolle, also a friend of Degas and Renoir. In the event, these early Images, now known as Images oubliées, remained unpublished until 1977. But the visual reference long stayed in Debussy’s mind and gave birth to the three magnificent sets of Images in the first decade of the 20th century. Of the first book of Images for piano, he commented – with perception and no lack of modesty – that it would take its place ‘to the left of Schumann and to the right of Chopin.’ It is recognised today that such a positioning is precisely right for the whole of the Debussy piano repertoire.
Paul Roberts playing Debussy’s ‘La cathédrale engloutie’ from Préludes One: