Debussy - Nocturnes, for female chorus & orchestra, L. 91
A special role is allotted to the English horn in "Nuages" (Clouds), the first piece of the group. Thin, two-voice counterpoint in steady quarter notes provides a background for the English horn's rather plaintive gesture. The same melodic fragment is repeated several times with very little alteration or extension, interrupted occasionally by comments from the French horn section. A stark contrast is provided by a pentatonic interlude, scored for flute and harp against a sustained chordal background and marked "Un peu animé." The English horn raises its quiet voice again, only to dissolve against the pianissimo tremolo background as the flute takes up its melody one more time. The quietly pulsating pizzicati of "Nuages" conclusion provide a sense of "grey agony," as Debussy put it.
"Fêtes" (Festivals) will be friendly ground to any listener familiar with the final movement of Respighi's 1929 work along the same lines, Feste Romane. The juxtaposition of a forceful, even percussive, rhythmic ostinato in 12/8 time with the earthy tune of the brass band (representing the Garde Républicaine) provides for the same kind of multi-textural feel that Respighi would exploit even further three decades later. Through sheer repetition the music builds to several swaggering climaxes, only to be deflated each time and have to begin the process all over again. The music trails away into nothingness as the brass band finally completes its journey through the heart of the celebration. Remarkable about "Fêtes" is Debussy's ability to hint at raunchiness and vulgarity within the context of his own extremely refined soundworld.
A vocalizing (i.e., textless) women's chorus is added to the ensemble for "Sirènes," the last, and in many ways the most evocative of the Nocturnes. One must not be misled by "Sirènes" repetitiveness and apparent simplicity -- a simplicity meant to parallel the deceptively innocent charm of the mythological sea sirens -- for here is a work of great subtlety indeed. The dense intricacy of the orchestral effects contained throughout the piece, set almost exclusively at a piano or pianissimo dynamic indication, has reminded more than one listener of the techniques of that most accomplished of orchestrators, Maurice Ravel. Debussy's methods, however, are entirely his own. Not surprisingly, the music drifts away into the sea, floating upon the few sparse harmonics of the two harpists. ~ All Music Guide