Images Book 1 by Debussy

Debussy’s Images Book 1 (usually pronounced the French way: im-AHJ) is a gorgeous French Impressionist work for solo piano. It is the first set in a series of six solo piano pieces composed between 1901 and 1907:


Debussy (1862-1918) was – and still is – known for his innovative music. During his life, the Romantic Era was coming to a close. Composers everywhere explored new ways to create sound and atmosphere in their music. Debussy led the way in using music as a means to explore images and color.

After completing his orchestral work La Mer, Debussy returned to the piano with Images Book 1. His fresh, orchestral perspective gleaned from the massive symphonic work guided his hand in composing Images, and this piano work showcases his creative and unique compositional style. Each individual movement uses subtlety in melody, harmony, and rhythm to create an expressive sound world.

Images Book 1 consists of three movements: “Reflets dans l’eau”, “Hommage à Rameau”, and “Mouvement”.

Analysis of Images Book 1

Reflets dans l’eau

“Reflets dans l’eau” (“Reflections in the Water”, 0:05) opens with a reaching three-note motif (consisting of A♭, F, and E♭), which is explored in the rest of the movement (compare the opening to the section starting at 2:30). Impressions of light reflecting off of water are extremely prevalent through the use of rapid arpeggios and shimmering waves of sound. Instead of developing full musical ideas, Debussy wrote glimpses of melodic statements and climaxes to create that “never-quite-there” feeling of a reflection in water.

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The ending of this movement is one of Debussy’s best moments. After a build-up beginning at 3:00, the sound fizzles out via whole-tone scales (a type of scale consisting of only whole steps, 3:56) into some lush chords. Notice how Debussy uses both extremes of the keyboard. The left hand plays super low bass while the right hand plays high treble; the two combined create a sense of vast space. The opening theme returns at 4:57, but the real coda begins at 5:36: a pattern of alternating low and high chords calling on motifs explored earlier in the piece lead to one final statement of the three-note theme.

Of this movement, Debussy felt it captured “the most recent discoveries of harmonic chemistry”; he was really pushing the boundaries in composition to create something that would leave a lasting impression (pun intended).

Hommage à Rameau

“Hommage à Rameau” (“Homage to Rameau”, 6:46) is a stately Baroque sarabande that pays tribute to the 18th-century composer Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764). The work opens with a soft, singular line reminiscent of Gregorian Chant. A second theme enters at 7:11 that consists of rising and falling chords. The chant theme returns, but it’s no longer a solemn unison line.

A brief climax begins at 8:52, where the full chords and slow rhythm build in intensity. Bell-like projections in the left hand add texture and color before falling into a broken rendition of the chant motif (9:17). The next section, beginning at 10:07, presents a shift in color and mood through sustained notes in the bass and a dotted rhythm in the chords. The excitement builds until the opening theme returns to close out the work at 12:02. All of the themes reappear at the end, swirling around each other until the final, muted chord.

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The final movement, appropriately titled “Mouvement” (“Movement”, 14:36), builds out of an energetic, whirling ostinato. Open 5ths in the right hand encircle rapid triplets in the left until a bell motif rings out at 14:50, and a cheerful, dance-like theme enters at 15:15 that echoes down the keyboard. The mood changes at 16:01 with a shift in harmony before a dramatic build-up (that returns to the opening theme at 17:25).

The ending of this movement is unique. As the notes climb in register on the piano (18:24), the sound dies away. The spinning energy slowly comes to a stop. It signifies the end of this movement as well as the end of Images Book 1, and it leaves the listener contemplating on the work as a whole.