Debussy: Nocturnes

JUly COMPOSER: claude debussy

Claude Debussy

Three nocturnes 1899

Three Nocturnes is said to have been Debussy’s most ambitious work up until the time it was published. He, himself described it as an experiment. There are hints of some of this other work in there with the use of the wind instruments (especially the flute and oboe) but with this piece I get less of a scene unfolding and more of a series of static image. Or at least one of those strange pictures that looks like its moving when you tilt it this way and that. Even with the more festive middle nocturne there is something eerie but calming about all three played together.

Nocturne in the 19th Century referred to a specific type of composition (Chopin was famous for his Nocturnes) but Debussy uses it as more of a reference to the influence of artist JM Whistler. The first nocturne is Nuages, meaning clouds, and is a softer, floating melody. The second is Fêtes, meaning festivals which starts suddenly with a fanfare and keeps up a carnival pace and atmosphere throughout. The third is Sirènes, meaning sirens, a hauntingly angelic and softer movement with the use of women’s voices as an instrument itself.

Watch Georges Prêtre conduct The Three Nocturnes.

fluffy white cloudsI imagine three scenes in the one small coastal town. A cemetery on a hill by the sea, mist hugging the land, an oak tree overhanging the gravestones. The sky’s brilliant blue fading to grey in the twilight while white candyfloss clouds float slowly by. There’s a gentle breeze, the grass bends lightly to it, dandelion fairies give their time away bit by bit. Then the scene shifts to the town fair in the evening, crowds bustling, children holding balloons and giant round lollipops, cake stalls, a small gilded carousel, bunting flags strung from flagpoles and flapping in the breeze. A marching band enters and runs rings around the grounds and through the people while the fairground buzz continues in the background. And then another shift, to the waves lapping on the shore below the cemetery on the higher ground. Statues of angels on the graves watch over the water, as it laps in and out on the shore signalling to the sirens of the sea as they call to each other.

Whistler's Nocturne Trafalgar Sq

Debussy is said to have described Three Nocturnes as an experiment in colour. He compares it to a artist painting an entire painting in grey — using many differing shades to create a scene. Painting was a big influence on Debussy. He was in Paris at the time of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism and was friends with Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin and Whistler. In fact Whistler’s 1870 set of paintings ‘Nocturnes’ was the direct influence for The Three Nocturnes. I can hear it, the painting. I am using a completely different sense to absorb his work but I am feeling something similar. Which goes to show how good he was at it. It also shows how it is that we process art – how it can transcend our own boundaries.


*images in order of appearance courtesy of Public Domain, Dariusz Wlodarczyk via CC, Nocturne, Traflagar Sq by JM Whistler via Public Domain,


2 thoughts on “Debussy: Nocturnes

  1. MarinaSofia says:

    Even without knowing the background story, I’ve always associated Debussy’s Nocturnes with the Impressionists – there really must be something in the music itself which lends itself to that! Now I have to check out your post about La Mer.


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