Length: c. 25 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd = piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 3 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (cymbals, snare drum), 2 harps, strings, and women’s chorus
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances: February 27, 1920 (“Nuages” and “Fêtes”), Walter Henry Rothwell conducting; November 14, 1935 (“Sirènes”), Pierre Monteux conducting
As with most composers of the late 19th and early 20th century, Claude Debussy’s musical imagination was fired by extra-musical stimuli. He composed few pieces of absolute music – pure music, not inspired by art, literature, or anything else – including a student symphony, a fantasy for piano and orchestra, a rhapsody for saxophone and orchestra, and the Études for piano. The Nocturnes, whose title doesn’t automatically take them out of the “absolute” category, were actually inspired by a set of paintings from the 1870s by American artist James McNeill Whistler. These artworks, also entitled Nocturnes, are studies in light and shade that offer an impression of landscapes and objects.
In fact, Debussy knew Whistler and several other artists – Toulouse-Lautrec and Gaugin among them – and was a great admirer of the work of J.M.W. Turner, whose canvases show a proto-impressionistic feeling for light similar to that found in Whistler’s Nocturnes. The composer went to London in 1903 to see Turner’s paintings, and once described the artist as “the greatest creator of mystery in art.” Debussy provided an introductory note to the Nocturnes that reveals the influence of these painters’ sensibilities on his own thinking, with its reliance on light, mystery, and impression to characterize his music.
“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’ (Clouds) renders the immutable aspect of the sky and the slow, solemn motion of the clouds, fading away in grey tones lightly tinged with white. ‘Fêtes’ (Festivals) 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 in it. But the background remains resistantly the same: the festival with its blending of music and luminous dust participating in the cosmic rhythm. ‘Sirènes’ (Sirens) 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.”
Debussy composed the Nocturnes between 1897 and 1899; the first two movements received their premiere in Paris, conducted by Camille Chevillard, on December 9, 1900. The first complete performance followed nearly a year later, on October 27, 1901. The work met a cool critical reception, and Debussy revised all three movements over the course of the rest of his life. In the case of “Sirènes,” he struggled especially with the women’s chorus included in the movement, tweaking the music to achieve a smoother blend of voices and orchestra. This instrumental use of voices is just one of the remarkable traits of the Nocturnes, which, at the time of their completion, comprised Debussy’s most ambitious orchestral work to date (La mer followed in 1905 and Images in 1913).
Debussy treats two themes in “Nuages,” one slow-moving and chordal (heard at the beginning of the movement), the other airier and more luminous (introduced by flute and harp). “Fêtes” is a rhythmically-driven depiction of the kind of rustic pleasures enjoyed by Debussy during his childhood in the Bois de Boulogne, a sprawling wooded park on the western edge of Paris. “Sirènes” abandons the thematic and rhythmic underpinnings of the two previous movements, instead relying on an ever-shifting atmosphere to conjure the sounds of the sea and the song of the mythical Sirens. The exoticism of the music stems, in part, from the influence of the Balinese gamelan, an orchestra of metallic percussion instruments that Debussy heard at the World Exposition in Paris in 1899. With “Neptune” from Holst’s The Planets, “Sirènes” is one of the most haunting uses of female voices to conclude a work, a radiant thread added to a gorgeous tapestry of sound.