In all the years we’ve lived in the Hudson Valley, we’ve never managed to visit the much-recommended Wethersfield Garden. Its season is short, as are its visitors’ hours, and we seem to think of visiting only at times when it’s closed. Finally, the idea to go and the visitors’ hours matched, so off we went. It’s an elegant formal garden with expansive views.
I happened to be listening to some piano music by Debussy as I looked through photographs from our visit. Wethersfield Garden has peacocks in residence, and I wondered whether Debussy had written anything to do with peacocks. Turns out he had.
The Images (oubliées) were written in 1894, though published only in 1977. According to an account on BBC Radio 3, “. . . the three pieces were dedicated to the teenager daughter of Debussy’s painter friend Henry Lerolle, Yvonne, who was also the composer Ernest Chausson’s niece.” The account continues:
She was obviously something of an attraction for contemporary artists, having been painted by Maurice Denis and Auguste Renoir and photographed by Edgar Degas. The present title of the suite was obviously meant to avoid confusion with the two well-known sets of Images. Debussy described the pieces as “not for brilliantly lit salons . . . but rather conversations between the piano and oneself”. He then recommended with a tongue in cheek: “It is not forbidden furthermore to apply one’s small sensibility to them on nice rainy days”.
The third piece in the suite is entitled Quelques aspects de “Nous n’irons plus au bois” parce qu’il fait un temps insupportable, which has been translated as “Some aspects of the song Nous n’irons plus au bois, because the weather is dreadful.” Over the “central arpeggiated section” appears the comment, “Here the harps imitate to perfection peacocks spreading their tails – or the peacocks imitate harps (as you like it!) and the sky cheers up again in summer clothing.”
Debussy’s Images (oubliées) and Images, Books 1 & 2 (Program notes for Images, Books 1 and 2, may be found here.)
Images, Book 1 (Marc-André Hamelin)
Bonus Track 1: The Peacock, from Jean Sibelius’s Swanwhite Suite, Op. 54 (1908)
The audio contains the first three pieces in the suite, Påfågeln (The Peacock), Harpan (The Harp), and Tärnorna med rosor (The Maidens with Roses).
Bonus Track 2 (with thanks to Kyle Gann for noting this): The White Peacock, by Charles Tomlinson Griffes
Credits: The quotations are from the sources linked in the text. The image of the Renoir painting, Yvonne et Christine Lerolle au piano, may be found here. The photographs, as always unless otherwise indicated, are mine.