Achille-Claude Debussy, 1862-1918. Nocturnes. Completed December 15, 1899 (at 3 A.M., according to an inscription on the manuscript), first performance October 27, 1901, in Paris. Scored for 3 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 3 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, cymbals, snare drum, tympani, 2 harps, female chorus, and strings.
The obvious common thread among the composers featured in tonight's concert is that they were all French. But they also shared other defining characteristics: all were innovators, and all excelled at orchestration, the art of selecting instrumental combinations to achieve a desired sound. Berlioz wrote one of the first (and still definitive) books on the subject, and one of Ravel's greatest accomplishments was his incomparable orchestral setting of Mussorgsky's monumental piano composition, Pictures at an Exhibition.
But in some ways Claude Debussy, one of the first ``impressionist'' composers, was the most gifted of the three. Like the French painters whose work lent a label to Debussy's musical style, he preferred the subtle to the blatant, quiet harmonies to blaring statements, and an overall texture that gently encouraged the listener to become immersed in the artist's experience. This led him into an exploration of instrumental tone color that had never before, and perhaps has never since, been so thoroughly developed.
One of the finest examples of Debussy's style is the three-movement Nocturnes for orchestra. These pieces have a long and somewhat checkered history; in 1892 the composer wrote that he was nearly finished with Trois Scènes au Crépuscule (``Three Twilight Scenes''), an orchestral triptych after poems by Henri de Régnier. This version has been lost, as has been an 1894 incarnation intended as a violin concerto for Eugène Ysaÿe. But the ideas resurfaced in 1899 to become the Nocturnes we know today, and it is a testament to Debussy's mastery of instrumentation that it is now impossible to imagine the work in any other form.
While working on the violin-solo version, Debussy commented that it was ``a study in gray painting,'' but this description is really a disservice. Certainly the work employs pastel tones rather than bold colors, but there is no lack of variety. The warmth of Nuages (``Clouds'') recalls a summer love affair, with the English horn bringing languid caresses. Fétes (``Festivals'') is a restrained yet joyous celebration, the sort that generates lifelong memories without ever disturbing the neighbors. Finally, Sirènes (``Sirens'') builds on a simple two-note motive to seduce the listener into Debussy's river, just as dangerously as the mythological beauties who have lured innumerable sailors to their doom over the centuries. It is fortunate indeed that enraptured audiences are given a moment after the concert to regroup, lest they drown themselves in the thrall of French Impressionism's supreme achievement!
© 1996, Geoff Kuenning
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