Program Notes by Dr. K. Dawn Grapes
Perhaps more than any other composer, Claude Debussy’s music is associated with timbral color. Portrayals of light and shadow pervade as listeners are transported to worlds of ethereal splendor. In achieving this aim, the composer had a penchant for combining traditional orchestral instruments in new ways, in an effort to create aural depictions of moments in time. Is it any wonder, then, that Debussy (1862–1918) became associated with the contemporaneous French impressionist painting movement, even though he did not consider himself an impressionist?
Nocturnes provides an illuminating example of Debussy’s ability to conjure contrasting musical images, in this case of “Nuages”(Clouds), “Fêtes”(Festivals), and “Sirènes”(Sirens). The composition was first conceived in 1893 as a work for solo violin and orchestra, titled Trois Scènes au crepuscule (Three scenes at dusk) and inspired by the symbolist poetry of Henri de Régnier. Over time, however, Debussy re-envisioned the movements for full orchestra into something quite different than his original drafts portray. The title Nocturnes was added, supposedly borrowed from a painting style coined by James McNeill Whistler, an American painter who spent his time in Paris rubbing shoulders with elite French artists. Whistler’s visual nocturnes rely on diffused light and color to express waning twilight. Thus, the new title connects directly back to Régnierbut’s dusky scenes.
Debussy described the work thus:
It is not meant to designate the usual form of the Nocturne, but rather all the various impressions and special effects of light that the word suggests. “Nuages” renders the immutable aspect of the sky and the slow, motion of the clouds, fading away in grey tones lightly tinged with white. “Fêtes” gives us the vibrating, dancing rhythm of the atmosphere with sudden flashes of light … “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. (trans. Léon Vallas)
The first two movements of Nocturnes were premiered by the Orchestre Lamourex in 1900, almost eight years after Debussy first began developing the suite. The third movement was not heard for another year, but when finally performed, featured a wordless, female chorus that sonically depicts enchanted sirens in their mystical world. In spite of—or perhaps because of—the composition’s long, winding creation trajectory, the musical work captures much of the essence of the Paris artistic scene of the time, with its unspoken hints of symbolist poetry and implied impressionistic auditory brushstrokes.
Program Notes by Dr. K. Dawn Grapes, ©2023
Program Notes by Dr. William E. Runyan
Claude Debussy composed the three movements of his Nocturnes for orchestra between 1897-99. The early reception of this work 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; of them his Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (published in 1895) is most widely familiar to concert audiences today.
“Nocturnes,” Debussy’s choice of words 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. 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: for example, the real title of “Whistler’s Mother” of 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 (festivals), 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 depicts 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, combine here with the shimmering sound of the Sirens’ song to complete the trilogy.
Program Notes by Dr. William E. Runyan, ©2023