Debussy – Nocturnes

by Max Derrickson

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

I. Nuages (Clouds)
II. Fêtes (Festivals)
III. Sirènes (Sirens)

Quietly drifting, intoxicatingly amorphous strains of thirds and fifths flow from the woodwinds in the opening of Debussy’s Nocturnes. They’re beautiful and distant and meandering.  There soon emerges an English horn strain, a short ascension of notes spanning that most nebulous of all intervals, a diminished fourth, soon followed by the far off soaring strains of harmonics in the strings and the hum of the timpani – all of it played very quietly.  It’s exquisite and drenches the consciousness in a kind of hushed awe.   Were it not, however, for Debussy’s title for the first movement, Clouds, we would be utterly clueless as to what the work was representing.  In fact, each of the three movements’ titles and their respective musical counterparts are connected only symbolically, which was precisely Debussy’s intent.  Probably more than any other composer before him, Debussy understood the effusive nature of tones, their ambiguously fluid connection to meanings, and their more perfect and potent ability to move the psyche.  His Nocturnes are phantasmagorical dreamscapes and are absolutely enchanting.

[. . .]  The distinctions between the terms and their art are small enough, however, that for the purposes here Debussy’s music does not suffer by calling it Symbolist.

The tenets of Symbolism are a complicated manifesto which was as much a psychological query as an artistic movement, but with regards to the arts, it put a heavy emphasis on how the viewer/listener actually received a moment of art.  It ran deeply spiritual, as well –   [. . .]

Debussy’s Nocturnes exemplify his inspiration from the literature and paintings of his time.  Like Nocturnes, Debussy’s earlier masterpiece, Prelude to an Afternoon of a Faun, was based on the poem by Stephane Mallarmé.  And for the Nocturnes, Debussy was inspired by both poetry and art, creating music almost by synesthesia.  The Nocturnes began to take shape in 1892 as Three Twilight Scenes based on poems by Henri de Régnier.  Then they morphed into a violin concerto of sorts, until they took their ultimate form as the Nocturnes in 1899.     [. . .]

Certainly others had, and were, following some of the same ideas in music, but what Debussy was able to achieve probably thrust music into its modernity more than any other composer before him.  And for those that followed, Debussy’s influence is almost incalculable.

[. . .]

“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’ 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’ 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’ 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.”

[. . .]