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Nocturnes Nos. 1 and 2

About the Work

Claude Debussy
Quick Look Composer: Claude Debussy
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, conductor / Daniil Trifonov, piano, plays Rachmaninoff; Kelley O'Connor, mezzo-soprano, sings Falla Mar. 13 - 15, 2014
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda

The origin of Debussy's Nocturnes is cloudy. It is possible that he may have conceived the three movements of the work, and perhaps made some sketches, as early as 1892, when he was considering a tour to the United States proposed by one Prince Poniatowski. He informed the Prince that a piece called Trois Scènes au Crépuscule (‘Three Scenes at Twilight'), [was] almost finished, that is to say that the orchestration is entirely laid out and it is simply a question of writing out the score." This work, if it ever came into existence, seems to have completely disappeared, though it is rumored that a fragment has been locked away in private hands for years. The inspiration for this music was a set of ten poems (published in 1890) by Henri de Régnier, a symbolist poet and close associate of Mallarmé. (It was Régnier who approached Mallarmé with Debussy's request to base a work on his Prélude à l'apres-midi d'un faune.) Régnier's verses, collectively titled Poèmes anciens et romanesques, are, according to Edward Lockspeiser in his study of Debussy, "the product of an imaginary theatre of the mind in which action is sacrificed to poetic associations." The images evoked are dream-like and ritualistic and were well suited to Debussy's ideal of a music "made up of colors and rhythms... [rather than] something that can be poured into a tight and traditional form." Debussy's Scenes at Twilight have apparently faded into darkness, though they were the earliest evidence of the thoughts that eventually became the Nocturnes.

On December 29, 1893, the Ysaÿe Quartet introduced Debussy's String Quartet in G minor in Paris. The Belgian musician Eugène Ysaÿe was one of the great violinists of the time, and Debussy was impressed with his abilities and flattered by his interest in the his music. In September 1894 Debussy wrote to Ysaÿe offering him a three-movement piece for solo violin and orchestra, recast from the earlier Scenes at Twilight, which was "an experiment with the different shades that can be obtained from one color-like a study in gray in painting." Debussy specified that "the orchestration of the first movement is for strings, the second for flutes, four horns, three trumpets and two harps, while the third combines both these groupings." Debussy was also busy at the time with the composition of Pelléas et Mélisande, and it was two years before he was again able to approach Ysaÿe, imploring him to accept the concerted piece for his exclusive performance. Though the work for Ysaÿe never reached final form, Debussy remained interested in such a composition, and was still considering a "Poème" for solo violin and orchestra as late as 1914.

The final shaping of the Nocturnes began in 1897. The influences of Régnier's symbolist poetry and the orchestral sonority of the music intended for Ysaÿe melded with yet another one, recorded by Léon Vallas in his biography of the composer: "One day, in stormy weather, as Debussy was crossing the Pont de la Concorde in Paris with his friend Paul Poujaud, he told him that on a similar kind of day the idea of the symphonic work Nuages [‘Clouds'] had occurred to him: he had visualized those very thunderclouds swept along by a stormy wind; a boat passing, with its horn sounding. These two impressions are recalled in the languorous succession of chords and by the short chromatic theme on the English horn." Debussy went on to explain to Poujaud that Fêtes ("Festivals") had been inspired by a recollection of merry-making in the Bois de Boulogne, with noisy crowds watching the drum and bugle corps of the Garde Nationale pass in parade. The finale (Sirènes -"Sirens"), which includes women's chorus though they sing without text, derives from L'Homme et la Sirène by Henri de Régnier, a symbolist poet and close associate of Mallarmé. The title of the entire cycle-Nocturnes-and the idea for its tone-color painting may have been taken from the work of James McNeill Whistler, the American-born artist who lived in Paris and London for most of his life and whose best-known work, a portrait of his mother, was formally entitled by him Arrangement in Gray and Black, No. 1. All of these streams-poetic, visual, sensual, sonorous-flowed into the three Nocturnes.

Debussy worked for two years finishing the Nocturnes. On September 16, 1898 he wrote to the publisher Georges Hartmann that these three orchestral pieces were giving him more trouble than all five acts of Pelléas. He wanted to follow the sensation created in 1894 by his Prélude à l'apres-midi d'un faune with an equally stunning orchestral work, but one that would also fulfill his grand, avant-garde view of the art. "I love music passionately, and because I love it I try to free it from the barren traditions that stifle it," he proclaimed. "It is a free art, gushing forth-an open-air art, an art boundless as the elements, the wind, the sky, the sea! It must never be shut in and become an academic art." Even after Hartmann published the work in 1899, Debussy continued to refine his vision by touching up the orchestration in his personal copy of the score for years thereafter. These changes were incorporated into the definitive version of the work issued in 1930.

The first two of the Nocturnes were given in Paris at the Lamoureux concert of December 9, 1900. Though they were unanimously hailed in the press, the critics were hard put to offer much technical explanation of this music in such an unprecedented style. Pierre de Bréville's comments for the Mercure de France are typical: "It is pure music, conceived beyond the limits of reality, in the world of dreams, among the ever-moving architecture that God builds with mists, the marvelous creations of the impalpable realms." Later writers have continued trying to describe this ineffable music. Among the most cogent observation is Olin Downes' summation that "Debussy was supremely the artist capable of selecting the instant of pure beauty and transfixing it on his tonal canvas for eternity."

Debussy himself caught the delicate blending of reality and imagination in the poetic description of the Nocturnes that he provided for the work's first complete performance, on October 27, 1901:


The title Nocturnes is intended to have here a more general and, more particularly, a more decorative meaning. It is not meant to designate the usual form of a nocturne, but rather all the impressions and the special effects of light that the word suggests.

: the unchanging aspect of the sky and the slow and solemn march of clouds fading away in gray tones slightly tinged with white.

: vibrating, dancing rhythm, with sudden flashes of light. There is also the episode of a procession (a dazzling, fantastic vision) passing through the festive scene and becoming blended with it; but the background remains persistently the same: the festival with its blending of music and luminous dust participating in the universal rhythm of things.