Nocturnes, L. 98

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            The three movements of Debussy’s Nocturnes for orchestra  were composed during 1897-99.  Their early reception was not wholly enthusiastic, by any means, and they continued to receive mixed reviews for most of the next decade.  It took quite a while before they gained their position as a respected part of the standard orchestral repertoire.   He had composed earlier works for orchestra as a developing composer, but of them, only his Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (published in 1895) is widely familiar to concert audiences, today. 

            Debussy’s choice of words, “nocturnes,” as the title of the three-movement suite largely reflects his new outlook.  What he clearly did not wish to convey is any connection with traditional Germanic concepts of sonata, symphony, or the like.  He sought a new, flexible title that was basically neutral in that regard.  So, he used the term that goes back in musical history to compositions that originally evoked the night, but later came to refer to groups of movements intended to be played outdoors by an ensemble as a kind of serenade. Later, the Irish pianist, John Field, innovated the term for his brief piano studies in one mood, as did others, notably, Chopin, after him.  The point is that generally a single mood is the sole focus for a nocturne, and Debussy admirably explored three quite different ones in his three for orchestra.   But, perhaps the single most influential factor in his choice is associated with the great American painter, James McNeil Whistler, who lived, studied, and worked in Paris in the nineteenth century.  Whistler appropriated the musical term for a series of paintings (interesting enough, originally called “moonlights”) that evoke maritime scenes at night, using washes of delicate colors.  Debussy definitively acknowledged the inspiration for his composition in Whistler’s paintings.

            Debussy’s three movements are entitled Nuages, Fêtes, and Sirènes.  He left us specific comments about them, so we understand rather well what he had in mind in each. Nuages (clouds) depicts the serene immutable floating of clouds in the sky, a delicate study in the infinite varieties of grays and white.  The exploration of such relationships was fundamental to the work of Whistler:  Remember that the real title of “Whistler’s Mother,” of course, is “Arrangement in Grey and Black,” and that the title of another significant work of his was “Symphony in White, No. 1.”

            The second movement, Fêtes (festival), depicts just that, but not one that should evoke a specific place and time, rather the idea of a universal one, with dancing rhythms and splashes of comet-like light.  A sonorous procession (listen for the muted trumpets) interrupts in the middle, but the splashy, vivacious mood of the beginning returns.

            The last movement, Sirènes, is a seascape, replete with a wordless women’s chorus that depict the Sirens, the alluring bird-women, who seduce unwary sailors to death and destruction. Debussy frequently treated the human voice as a unique addition to the palette of orchestral colors, and this is yet again more evidence of the supreme imagination by which French composers exploited and enlarged the resources of the orchestra.  The undulating rhythms of the sea familiar to us in Debussy’s great La Mer here combine with the shimmering sound of the Sirens’ song to complete the trilogy.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan