The plot of the first piece of Images, Reflets dans l’eau, suggests a pictorial rather than musical solution. The aesthetics of Impressionism considered it possible to blur clear lines between various types of art. The desire for sound recording, transmitting the murmur of water, requires an exquisite pedaling technique, the finest play of side tones, a lyrical touch, complex phonics of passages, and figurations. The composer deliberately avoids rough, “percussive” sonorities, suggesting that performers “forget that the piano has hammers.”
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There is subtle poetry in Reflets dans l’eau: the music depicts quiet splashes, the charming murmur of water jets, and in the end, some distant bell echoes. With the usual skill, the composer juxtaposes and replaces harmonic and modal colors (diatonic, chromatic, whole tone, etc.). The general tone of the music is marked by transparent sadness. The music lulls, although moments of uplift are inherent in it (the highest emotional culmination – sonorous and joyful – is given on the sound of an E-flat major triad).
Soft chord tones define the character of this genuinely impressionistic soundscape. A feature of the composer’s musical language’s intonational nature is the frequent combination of pure diatonism with complex sounds of an increased scale. The variety of sound combinations is contained in the first eight bars of the piece. Immediately after this, complex chromatic alternations of discordant combinations appear so that after a few bars, they will be replaced by successions of pure quarts and fifths.
One of the most significant features of Debussy’s music is sonic variety. It should constantly be in the field of vision of the performer (Walsh, 2018). The path to sound diversity, to multicolor, should mostly go through the acquisition of motor freedom and lightness through finger work. Speaking about Debussy’s piano texture, one should highlight its multi-layered nature, the phonic “illusion” of impressionistic writing (Walsh, 2018). The specificity of the piano, its percussiveness must be overcome. Therefore, when playing the first part of the piece, it is essential to pay attention to the bass. On its overtones, the line of the sixteenths of the right hand, drawing the water surface (smooth surface), is performed legato as close to the keyboard as possible, horizontally.
The three-sounding motive, where a small dash at the top underlines these notes, is the first thematic grain. Some musicians believe that they should be played separately, while others are louder. The piece is marked with a note – Tempo rubato, which indicates a change in nuance and movement. The pedal in the work is textured and necessary. When pedaling, a performer needs to focus on the bass, which should be extended and at the same time sufficiently sonorous. Mixing of overtones creates a sharp color, and the resulting chromatic alternations create a different, more severe sound atmosphere.
Voiced descending sixteenths in the upper register of the right hand are played slowly, showing the sun’s glare reflected in the water. Therefore, it is necessary to compare registers and find the corresponding “colors.” At the beginning of the second page, pure quarts and fifths meet each other from the extreme registers’ depths. This phrase should have one line without gaps or stumbling. It is necessary to build a general dynamic wave, gradually accelerating, as indicated by the composer.
The transition to the new second theme is plastic, almost imperceptible. There are three sound planes in this construction: the orchestral “pedal” in the bass, figuration, and the middle voice. The texture should sound transparent, which depends primarily on the vertical distribution of sonority. It is necessary to continually work to ensure that the bass, despite the left hand’s constant transfers, is taken softly and calmly. The middle melody should have a slightly denser sound but with a completely soft and free hand.
In the first theme’s reprise, the pianist’s right hand moves circularly, hinting at circles on the water. In the next episode (enanimant), the evening haze seems to spread. Arpeggios in the upper register splash, sparkle, fall like a veil of water. The second theme now sounds loud and sharp in the high register. In the process of purposeful development, it leads to a bright culmination. For the first time in the play, a pure tonic triad appears. It creates the effect of a sudden flash of light. Plunging all the weight into the keyboard for fortissimo, a performer needs to build a general phrase, as if feeling the movement forward. The pedal does not change during one harmony, and starting with ritenuto, it lasts for 3 bars. Arpeggiated passages in the left hand convey water splashes, the murmur of water, and at the same time envelop the main contours of the melody.
The calm silence of nature reigns in the code. Here, it is required to listen carefully in harmony, overtones, with no rush. It is necessary to hold the left pedal throughout the entire code. With such a performance, the sound becomes more illusory. The ending is played on both pedals, without changing the right pedal – the sounds pass into one another, naturally resonating. The combination of these techniques and following the instructions of the composer allows performers to create an image of a living and mobile water.
Walsh, S. (2018). Debussy: A painter in sound. Faber & Faber.