Claude Debussy: Images, Book 2

Written for the Tippet Rise Art CenterNot to be reprinted without permission.

What each of these pieces conveys seems clear enough: bells through the leaves, the moon setting over an abandoned temple, and goldfish. Yet there are a few wrinkles: the title “Bells through the leaves” seems to conflate sight and sound, and “Goldfish” was inspired not by a koi pond but by a Japanese lacquer panel depicting one. Though Claude Debussy loved and found inspiration in the visual arts, he was ambivalent about any connection between his music and French Impressionism. He was not so interested in making musical versions of paintings as he was in getting at the same kinds of ideas that art did, but by other means.

In pieces like Images, he threw out the established conventions of harmony, finding new sonorities and new ways of relating chords by letting his ears guide his fingers on the keys. “There is no theory,” he said. “You only have to listen. Pleasure is the law.”

Debussy wrote Images, Book 2, in 1908, following up on Book 1, which he completed in 1905. He also wrote a third set for orchestra—all part of an order from his publisher, Durand, who recognized the allure of such evocative pieces.

Benjamin Pesetsky is a composer and writer. He serves on the staff of the San Francisco Symphony and also contributes program notes for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Melbourne Symphony.