“Nocturnes” (Trois Nocturnes) is an orchestral composition in three movements written by Claude Debussy and completed on 15 December 1899. The first two movements, “Nuages” and “Fêtes”, were premiered by Camille Chevillard with the Lamoureux Orchestra on 9 December 1900 in Paris, while the complete suite was performed under the same forces on 27 October 1901. The initial performances met with a cool response from critics and the public, but today these are considered some of Debussy’s most accessible and popular works, admired for their beauty. The French composer Maurice Ravel transcribed this composition for two pianos.
The three movements were inspired by a series of impressionist paintings, also entitled “Nocturnes”, by James Abbott McNeill Whistler. The three movements are:
1. Nuages (“Clouds”);
2. Fêtes (“Festivals”);
3. Sirènes (“Sirens”).
According to Debussy’s introductionary note to the Nocturnes: “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.”
Conductor: Vladimir Ashkenazy & Cleveland orchestra.