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  • Debussy’s ‘Ibéria’
  • Brian Hart
Debussy’s ‘Ibéria’. By Matthew Brown . ( Studies in Musical Genesis and Structure.) New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. [ xv, 177 p. ISBN 0-19-816199-9. $85.] Music examples, bibliography, index.

One of Debussy's most significant works, the Images for orchestra have stood somewhat in the shadow of earlier masterpieces like Nocturnes and La mer. Matthew Brown provides us with an in-depth study of Ibéria, the center trilogy of Images. His book has a double purpose: it explains the genesis of Debussy's work and provides an analysis, then moves beyond Debussy to place this analysis into a larger context, to be explained below.

The first part of the study deals with the compositional history and aesthetic context of Ibéria. For this work the composer uncharacteristically left a substantial body of sketches, and Brown carefully extracts the information they have to offer. Through these sketches Brown observes that Ibéria, like most of Debussy's compositions, took shape over a long period (1903-10) and went through numerous revisions, some of them drastic.

Ibéria is the most substantial of Debussy's Spanish soundscapes, and the author asks what gives the piece the authentic flavor so praised by Manuel de Falla among others. Brown identifies its "Spanish" elements as idiosyncratic motivic formulae (though not [End Page 419] actual folk themes); modal harmonies and pedal points; rhythms of regional dances, especially the sevillana and habañera; and the inclusion of native instruments (castanets) as well as suggestions of others (e.g., numerous orchestral "guitar" effects). Save for one brief jaunt across the border to watch a bullfight, Debussy never visited Spain, so he did not learn its music on-site. Brown shows, however, that Debussy had plenty of opportunities to absorb Iberian sounds in Paris, then home to Isaac Albéniz, Falla, Joaquín Turina, and Ricardo Viñes. Spanish or Spanish-themed compositions regularly appeared on Parisian concerts.

In order to examine the thematic and tonal structure most effectively, Brown adopts a Schenkerian approach, which he finds illuminating despite Debussy's heterodox treatment of harmony and form. The composer's greatest challenge in Ibéria was to create a work of three independent yet deeply interconnected movements. Brown shows that Debussy ensures continuity throughout the work by means of constant and often subtle motivic transformations. Further, his graphs indicate that the background harmonic structure follows relatively conventional norms, however unpredictable the foreground may be.

In the second part of the book, Brown considers the genesis of each movement in greater detail. The sketches reveal that Debussy arrived at the final forms through painstaking experimentation. Techniques he employed to organize his material include tonal modeling, or the reworking of one section to create another; inserting a section of one movement into part of a subsequent one; and auxiliary cadences, in which the movement ends on the tonic but begins elsewhere.

Brown's insights into Ibéria prove highly illuminating; his book is lucidly written and extremely generous with examples and documentation. It helps to have a score at hand, but even the most involved parts of the analysis flow easily, and one need not be either a specialist in Schenker or sketch studies to follow it. Regarding the presentation, I note only the erroneous labeling of "Jeux de vagues" as the third movement of La mer (p. 126), and the overuse of certain phrases, especially "top-down bottom-up" in reference to Debussy alternating between foreground and broader perspectives when contemplating his compositional choices for each movement. One might also welcome an interpretation of the cover photo of the famous Spanish dancer Caroline Otéro (1868-1965), who otherwise makes no appearance in the text.

Brown regards his study of Ibéria as an illustration of a second and (to him) more important project. Concerned with the seeming disconnection between the study of sketches and the analysis of the finished product, and intrigued by the mystery of how musical creators arrive at their finished products, Brown hypothesizes that, in his words, "composition might be understood as a form of knowledge-based problem solving" (p. 2). Inspired by John...


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