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Incubated in Impressionism in the visual arts and the Symbolist movement in literature, Debussy was alert to the intoxicating interplay of words and images. “I am almost as fond of pictures as I am of music,” he wrote. He composed three sets of musical Images, the two for piano which we hear tonight, and another for orchestra. In lieu of a visual stimulus, Debussy deployed carefully wrought titles, by turns evocative and enigmatic, to stimulate the imaginations of his listeners.

“Reflets dans l’eau” (Reflections on the water) is a masterpiece in the tradition of water music, the piano conjuring up water both at rest and at play, deep and mysterious, and glinting in sunshine. “Hommage à Rameau” borrows no stylistic trait from Jean-Phillipe Rameau (1683-1764), Debussy’s composer predecessor. At the time he was composing his first set of Images in 1903, Debussy was editing some of Rameau’s music.  Does the melancholy of the piece describe the hypnotic allure  of a remote and possibly unknowable past? “Mouvement” explains itself. The performer is asked to play with “a whimsical lightness, but precisely.”

Though it was not published until 1908, Debussy had planned the titles for the second set of Images as early as 1903. Where the titles of the first set were for the most part descriptive, here Debussy’s carefully chosen words induce speculations. “Cloches à travers les feuilles” (Bells through the leaves) and “Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut” (And the moon sets upon the temple that was) both defy explication. Indications in the score are equally suggestive. We find “comme une buée irisée” (like an iridescent mist) amid tantalizing hints of an East Asian gamelan ensemble.

Asian influences prevail in “Poissons d’or”; not “Goldfish” as it is often mistranslated, but “Golden Fish,” based on a Japanese lacquer panel depicting two golden koi sporting under a willow branch that was in the composer’s possession.