Debussy: Nocturnes

ACHILLE-CLAUDE DEBUSSY (He dropped the name Achille in 1892.)

BORN: August 22, 1862. Saint Germain-en-Laye, Départment of Seine-et-Oise, France

DIED: March 25, 1918. Paris, France

COMPOSED: Between 1897 and 1899, drawing on some material sketched as early as 1892

WORLD PREMIERE: The first two nocturnes only were performed at the Concerts Lamoureux in Paris on December 9, 1900, Camille Chevillard conducting. The complete set was given for the first time by the same performers on October 27, 1901

US PREMIERE: February 10, 1904. B.J. Lang conducted at a Chickering Production concert in Boston

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—Alfred Hertz conducted Fêtes in October 1919. Pierre Monteux led the first SFS performances of all three nocturnes in January 1936. MOST RECENT—February 2007. Michael Tilson Thomas conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 3 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 3 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, two harps, timpani, cymbals, snare drum, and strings, to which a chorus of sopranos and altos is added for Sirènes

DURATION: About 24 mins

THE BACKSTORY Debussy’s loveliness is nothing short of exquisite—and nowhere more than in the three symphonic movements that make up his Nocturnes: Nuages (Clouds), Fêtes (Festivals), and Sirènes (Sirens). Debussy’s first orchestral work following the groundbreaking Prélude à L’Après-midi d’un faune, it stands as a series of distinct tone poems. Their genesis dates to 1892-94, when the composer embarked on writing Trois scènes de crepuscule (“Three Twilight Scenes”), which he described frankly as experiments in orchestral groupings. He gave up on that project, but several years later he recycled some of the material he had sketched into Nocturnes.

Each of the movements evokes a specific landscape and each is a masterpiece of sensual orchestration. Monet, Renoir, Whistler, Turner, Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Mussorgsky, Wagner: all of these, and all their different arts, have been regularly evoked in discussions of Nocturnes—particularly Whistler, who bestowed the same title on a series of his atmospheric paintings. Whatever the influences, Debussy’s language here is instantly recognizable as his own, whether in the hazy impressionism of Nuages, the bright-hued animation of Fêtes, or the ceaseless undulation of Sirènes, in which the composer extravagantly employed a textless women’s choir to push seductive mystery to its very limit.

Nocturnes was received enthusiastically at its premiere, and would be the piece that definitively established Debussy’s reputation in musical Paris. As Debussy’s biographer Léon Vallas reported:

It delighted a certain number of music lovers—the most sensitive but perhaps not the most cultivated, paradoxical as this may seem—but a great many others were disappointed. The professors who respected classical usage and the conservatives who were faithful to the traditional habits were once more horrified. They were bewildered by an instrumentation that was so utterly different from the opaque style to which they were accustomed. The absolute freedom of the harmony caused even more amazement than the other elements of this music.”

But, Vallas continued, “Owing to the success of the Nocturnes, even those musical analysts who were the most antagonistic to progress found themselves obliged to take the new art into consideration. The composer himself, as he wrote to [the critic] Pierre Lalo, was only timidly endeavoring “to rid music of the legacy of clumsy, falsely interpreted traditions, under whose weight the art seemed likely to succumb.”

THE MUSIC Though Debussy was normally averse to “explaining” his compositions in any detail, he consented to provide a verbal commentary on each of the nocturnes. He undoubtedly describes Nocturnes as well as anyone could:

The title Nocturnes is to be interpreted here in a general and, more particularly, in a decorative sense. Therefore, it is not meant to designate the usual form of the Nocturne, but rather all the various impressions and the special effects of light that the word suggests. Nuages renders the immutable aspect of the sky and the slow, solemn motion of the clouds, fading away in gray tones lightly tinged with white. Fêtes gives us the vibrating, dancing rhythm of the atmosphere with sudden flashes of light. There is also the episode of the procession (a dazzling fantastic vision) which passes through the festive scene and becomes merged with it. But the background remains persistently the same: the festival with its blending of music and luminous dust participating in the cosmic rhythm. Sirènes depicts the sea and its countless rhythms and presently, amongst the waves silvered by the moonlight, is heard the mysterious song of the Sirens as they laugh and pass on.—James M. Keller

LISTEN AGAIN: Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra (Sony Classical) 

 A different version of James M. Keller’s Nocturnes note previously appeared in the program books of the New York Philharmonic and is reprinted with permission. © New York Philharmonic

(May 2019)