The story of... Debussy's Nocturnes

Malcolm Hayes on the mesmerisingly original works that had the critics wondering how on earth to describe them

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Sometimes the deepest revolutions are the quietest. Sometimes, too, a ground-breaking masterwork has to wait until well after its composer’s death to be appreciated.

Fortunately this was not the case when the first complete performance of Debussy’s Nocturnes was given in the Concerts Lamoureux series in Paris on 27 October 1901. (The first two movements, minus the concluding ‘Sirènes’, had been premiered in December the year before.) While some of the press were dismissive, other voices were approving and perceptive. Writing in Mercure de France, Pierre de Bréville observed that the elusive way in which the music of Nocturnes defied analysis was truly ‘the despair of critics’. And, he went on, that its capacity to mesmerise the ear and soul alike related to Debussy’s achievement in ‘not demanding of Music all that she can give but, instead, asking from her what she alone was capable of suggesting’.

Paul Dukas, too, who had been a close friend of Debussy since their student days together at the Paris Conservatoire, stated that on the basis of this work, his fellow-composer ‘must from now on be regarded as having a unique and distinctive place among the musicians of his time’.

What makes the music of Nocturnes so remarkable is its ability to imprint itself unforgettably on the mind in such an understated way. The three movements – ‘Nuages’ (Clouds), ‘Fêtes’ (Festivals), ‘Sirènes’ (Sirens) – are quite different from each other in tone and manner, and each presents a uniquely scored soundworld that has no true parallel elsewhere in Debussy’s music (although there is a distant echo of ‘Fêtes’ in the first movement of Ibéria). In his programme note for the first performance, the composer wrote: ‘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.’

Debussy had by now developed a deep-held resistance to the gestures of musical rhetoric – above all to the noisy, post-Wagnerian, big-orchestra variety then flourishing in Austro-German late Romanticism. ‘The muse,’ he liked to say, ‘should be always discreet.’ The Debussy style was one that favoured subtle juxtaposition of ideas over their lengthy development, that preferred quiet sounds to loud ones and, very often, a sense of stillness rather than traditionally symphonic, goal-directed movement.

In Nocturnes, the manner and orchestration of ‘Nuages’ and ‘Sirènes’ are each unusually restrained and individual: the latter adds a wordless female chorus, and both movements omit trombones and percussion apart from timpani (‘Nuages’ also omits trumpets). And while ‘Fêtes’ does offer fanfares, orchestral flourishes, and even an honest traditional tutti, its composer’s touch is defter than in any contemporary counterpart that comes to mind.

‘Nuages’, the only cloudscape in Debussy’s music, suggests this silent, fluctuating world in gently rocking chord-sequences for woodwind and muted strings; the composer’s note refers to ‘the immutable aspect of the sky and the slow, solemn motion of the clouds, fading away in grey tones lightly tinged with white’. Throughout the movement a fragment of melody for solo cor anglais only recurs on the same instrument, at the same unchanging pitch, while the drifting cloud-masses seem to form and re-form around it.

The music progresses while also appearing, with uniquely Debussyan sleight of hand, not to progress at all; the effect is both detached and achingly poignant, as if this unpeopled natural world somehow has a power greater than any human one to move the heart. In the same way the swirling rhythms and colours of ‘Fêtes’ combine opposites: the music’s brilliance is at once ultra-vivid and strangely abstracted, so that the central section’s sudden switch of pace and material suggests an imaginary passing procession – ‘a dazzling fantastic vision’, as Debussy described it – rather than a real one.

Finally ‘Sirènes’, in Debussy’s words, ‘depicts the sea and its countless rhythms; presently, among the waves silvered by the moonlight, is heard the mysterious song of the Sirens as they laugh and pass on’. There were only two sirens in Homeric legend, but Debussy’s evocation of their singing deploys a wordless chorus of 16 female voices. Again musical precedent is quietly and completely upended: the effect, rather than authentically choral, is of an other-worldly, almost instrumental vocalising, above and across a moonlit Greek sea that is evoked with spellbinding loveliness.

Original mastery like this always changes musical history. Yet here it did so uniquely, since Debussy’s style from this point continued to press ahead into new regions: the virtuoso manner and needlepoint scoring of La mer, completed only six years later, were to be strikingly different from the exquisite, half-toned sound-world of ‘Nuages’ and ‘Sirènes’. Even for Debussy, his achievement in Nocturnes was unfollowable.

 

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