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Estampes, L108

1903; first performed by Ricardo Vińes on 9 January 1904

Estampes (Engravings) is the title of the triptych of three pieces which Debussy put together in 1903. The first complete performance was given on 9 January 1904 in the Salle Erard, Paris, by the young Spanish pianist Ricardo Viñes, who was already emerging as the prime interpreter of the new French music of Debussy and Ravel. The first two pieces were completed in 1903, but the third derives from an earlier group of pieces from 1894, collectively titled Images, which remained unpublished until 60 years after Debussy’s death, when they were printed as Images (oubliées). Estampes marks an expansion of Debussy’s keyboard style: he was apparently spurred to fuse neo-Lisztian technique with a sensitive, impressionistic pictorial impulse under the impact of discovering Ravel’s Jeux d’eau, published in 1902. The opening movement, ‘Pagodes’, is Debussy’s first pianistic evocation of the Orient and is essentially a fixed contemplation of its object, as in a Chinese print. This static impression is partly caused by Debussy’s use of long pedal-points, partly by his almost constant preoccupation with pentatonic melodies which subvert the sense of harmonic movement. He uses such pentatonic fragments in many different ways: in delicate arabesques, in two-part counterpoint, in canon, harmonized in fourths and fifths and as an underpinning for pattering, gamelan-like ostinato writing. Altogether the piece reflects the decisive impression made on him by hearing Javanese and Cambodian musicians at the 1889 Paris Exposition, which he had striven for years to incorporate effectively in music. In its final bars the music begins to dissolve into elaborate filigree.

Just as ‘Pagodes’ was his first Oriental piece, so ‘La soirée dans Grenade’ was the first of Debussy’s evocations of Spain—that preternatural embodiment of an ‘imaginary Andalusia’ which would inspire Manuel de Falla, the native Spaniard, to go back to his country and create a true modern Spanish music based on Debussyan principles. Debussy’s personal acquaintance with Spain was virtually non-existent (he had spent a day just over the border at San Sebastian) and it is possible that one model for the piece was Ravel’s Habanera. Yet he wrote of this piece (to his friend Pierre Louÿs, to whom it was dedicated), ‘if this isn’t the music they play in Granada, so much the worse for Granada!’—and there is no debate about the absolute authenticity of Debussy’s use of Spanish idioms here. Falla himself pronounced it ‘characteristically Spanish in every detail’. ‘La soirée dans Grenade’ is founded on an ostinato that echoes the rhythm of the habanera and is present almost throughout. Beginning and ending in almost complete silence, this dark nocturne of warm summer nights builds powerfully to its climaxes. The melodic material ranges from a doleful Moorish chant with a distinctly oriental character to a stamping, vivacious dance-measure, taking in brief suggestions of guitar strumming and perfumed Impressionist haze. There is even a hint of castanets near the end. The piece fades out in a coda that seems to distil all the melancholy of the Moorish theme and a last few distant chords of the guitar.

‘Jardins sous la pluie’ is based on the children’s song ‘Nous n’rons plus au bois’ (We shan’t go to the woods): its original 1894 form was in fact entitled Quelques aspects de ‘Nous n’rons plus au bois’. The two versions are really two distinct treatments of the same set of ideas, but in ‘Jardins sous la pluie’ Estampes the earlier piece has been entirely rethought. The whole conception is more impressionistic, and subtilized. The teeming semiquaver motion is more all-pervasive, the tunes (for Debussy has added a second children’s song for treatment, ‘Do, do, l’enfant do’) more elusive and tinged sometimes with melancholy or nostalgia. The ending of the piece is entirely new. What it loses, perhaps, in child-like brashness the music gains in poetry and technical focus.

from notes by Malcolm MacDonald © 2010


Debussy: Suite bergamasque, Estampes, Children's Corner & Pour le piano
CDA66495Archive Service
Debussy: Piano Music
CDS44061/33CDs Boxed set (at a special price) — Archive Service
Musorgsky: Pictures from an Exhibition; Debussy: Estampes; Liszt: Ave Maria
Studio Master: SIGCD226Download onlyStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
French Reflections
Studio Master: CKD473Download onlyStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
Stephen Hough's Spanish Album
Studio Master: CDA67565Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available


No 1: Pagodes
Track 8 on CDA66495 [4'54] Archive Service
Track 8 on CDS44061/3 CD1 [4'54] 3CDs Boxed set (at a special price) — Archive Service
Track 16 on SIGCD226 [5'15] Download only
No 2: La soirée dans Grenade
Track 10 on CDA67565 [5'23]
Track 9 on CDA66495 [4'45] Archive Service
Track 9 on CDS44061/3 CD1 [4'45] 3CDs Boxed set (at a special price) — Archive Service
Track 8 on CKD473 [5'40] Download only
Track 17 on SIGCD226 [5'50] Download only
No 3: Jardins sous la pluie
Track 10 on CDA66495 [3'56] Archive Service
Track 10 on CDS44061/3 CD1 [3'56] 3CDs Boxed set (at a special price) — Archive Service
Track 9 on CKD473 [4'13] Download only
Track 18 on SIGCD226 [3'36] Download only

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