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Claude Debussy
Nocturnes (Clouds & Festivals)

Claude Debussy

(Born in St.-Germain-en-Laye, France in 1862; died in Paris, 1918)


1. Nuages (Clouds)

2. Fêtes (Festivals)

Debussy wanted us to hear and experience music in a new way. Each of the movements of his Nocturnes creates surprising, but delightful, visceral reactions. Completed in 1899, Nocturnes is one of Debussy’s most original creations. It’s music that beckons us inward; sensuous, saturated. For Debussy, Nocturnes was an expression of artistic freedom that he had been pursuing most of his career.

He was in good company in his pursuits. Living in Paris and coming of age in the 1880’s, at the beginning of the mind-bending fin-de-siècle where breaking boundaries had become the rule, artists, writers and musicians all shared a table (literally, at salons and soirées) and exchanged ideas about the philosophy of expression. In this creative mix were the Symbolist writers like Mallarmé and Verlaine, who were striving to represent dreamscapes and psychological states of being in their poetry. And Impressionist painters like Monet and Renoir who were attempting to paint what it felt like to witness, for example, a sunrise over the river Seine. In the center of this heady mix was Claude Debussy, who found the existing rules of making music – approaches to melody, harmony –insufficient. As he described it in 1910, music must be

“set … free from barren traditions that stifle it. It is a free art, gushing forth, an [open-]air art, an art boundless as the elements, the wind, the sky, the sea!”

In addition to the influence of those extraordinary artists and environment, Debussy’s muses were also eclectic. In 1889, he attended the Paris World Exposition where two “exhibits” made deep impressions: first, was his introduction to the colorful orchestrations (instrumentation and their groupings for effect) of the Russian master Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov who conducted two of his own works; and second was Debussy’s introduction to the trance-like, mysteriously exotic Eastern sounds of a Javanese gamelan – the Indonesian percussion orchestra, which, at the Exposition, was likely accompanied by a Wayang play (where two-dimensional leather puppets are thrown into shadow-relief onto a back-lit screen).

All of these inspirations were to come into full fruition in his Nocturnes, which had its premiere in 1901 – but the masterpiece was long in the making and represents Debussy’s long musical journey. Composed over seven years, the first version began to take shape in 1892 as “Three Twilight Scenes” based on a set of Symbolist poems by Henri de Régnier (1864 –1936). They then morphed into a violin concerto for the great Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe, but the soloist’s disinterest temporarily halted Debussy’s progress.

The work found its ultimate direction, however, from a Parisian exhibition of the American-born painter James McNeil Whistler (1834 –1903), who, while living in Paris and befriending Baudelaire and the founders of Impressionism, began expanding boundaries. He used musical terms as titles for his paintings (like “Arrangement” and “Nocturne”), and blended Eastern influences into his Western Impressionism. Whistler did this mainly by exploiting only a few colors, and creating a sense of “trying to see at twilight” in his paintings. Debussy adopted Whistler’s approach to titles and misty expressions, and after tinkering for the next several years, his own Nocturnes were finally completed in 1899. But Debussy felt an explanation was warranted:

“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.”

And to do this, Debussy employed various inspirations: unconventional scales (which he heard from Rimsky-Korsakov and the Javanese gamelan) and abandoning traditional Classical musical structures. The results are like listening to music through a slowly turning kaleidoscope, where musical patterns float in front of the “lens” of our ears, emerging and disappearing. All of this creates a kind of musical hypnosis.

Debussy’s complete Nocturnes contains three movements (Clouds, Festivals, and Sirens — the mythological kind). Sirens, which uses a wordless womens chorus, is sometimes omitted, as the Philharmonic does on this concert program.

The composer rarely wrote any explanatory narrative for his compositions, but he did so for his Nocturnes. It’s worth reprinting them]:

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.

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.