Images, Set I

About this work

Claude Debussy's Masques for piano L. 105 was written in 1904 as part of a clutch of works that were inspired by eighteenth-century French painting. Many artistic influences are in perfect balance here, and the subtlety of the work's collective spirit renders it a timeless union of past and present. Art from different mediums is reflected upon so effectively that several worlds of imagination are brought into unison. Masques is less than four minutes long but contains a thorough and satisfying handling of the material.

The eighteenth-century painter that was preoccupying Debussy at the time was the Flemish artist Antoine Watteau (1684-1721). His Rococo renderings of pastoral life are languid and suggest an effortlessness of execution. A piece of cloth draped over a knee at first glance could appear simple or loosely rendered, but on closer inspection, Watteau reveals a distinctness of form that is genuinely sublime. The colors are often quietly iridescent, and regularly capture a pre-twilight glow with uncanny accuracy. Such attention to natural lighting fired the imaginations of later Romantic artists such as Joseph Turner. Debussy's Masques is musically equal to Watteau's depictive strengths, bearing down on gradual transformations of initial material that never sound forced. The natural melodic motion, which the composer called the arabesque, winds unrestrained, with harmony that seems to envelope the tune with an organic naturalness. There is also an understated tension that simmers throughout the score. Part of the fascination of the work is in this flora-evoking quality. Furthermore, performers are often flummoxed by the work's lack of pyrotechnics, or easily recognized points of structural significance.

Masques is part of a music triptych including another piano work entitled L'isle joyeuse and a second set of Fêtes galantes, which are songs with piano accompaniment and texts by Paul Verlaine. All three works were published in September of the same year, and are directly related to the same basic materials. Apart from the powerful, idiomatically brilliant qualities discovered in Watteau's paintings, he and many contemporaries were preoccupied with the characters of the Commedia dell' arte, a cast of clown personas including diverse personas such as Pierrot, Colombine, and others. Masque is a specific reference to the antics of Scaramouche and his many masks. This troupe of clowns captured the imaginations of many composers at the turn of the century, including Arnold Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire, and Igor Stravinsky's Petroushka and the Pulchinella Suite, among others. This interest in toy-like, puppet personas was a regular preoccupation for Debussy, who worked at bringing such beings to life in his piano suite Children's Corner, La Boîte à joujoux, and other pieces. He was a master of non-reality who embraced a world of child-like fantasy with a sublime understanding of the dreamier instincts of the very young. Like many artists before and since, Debussy often behaved as though talent excused misbehavior. When listening to a work such as Masques, it is difficult to imagine the composer having any clouded ideas about tenderness. It sounds more like an apology for the artist's indulgences by beautifying the world with this work.