This week’s music is Nuages, the first of three Nocturnes for orchestra written by Claude Debussy.
Art can often influence the way other art forms development. For instance, Wagner’s famous Parsifal Overture was inspired by a 13th-century epic poem about King Arthur and the Holy Grail. Mahler’s Eighth Symphony (Symphony for a Thousand), was inspired by Goethe’s Faust. The music you will hear today was also inspired by an art form. Debussy was moved by a set of three paintings by the American artist James McNeill Whistler. The paintings, collectively titled Nocturnes, depicted simple landscapes in various modes of light and shadow. Debussy was inspired to create music that would achieve a similar effect, revealing moments of melodic light through shifting shadows of harmonic texture. He immediately began sketching the idea for Three Nocturnes for Orchestra, the first (titled Nuages) of which you will hear today.
Nuages is a representation of the sky and the slow, somber movement of the clouds. Listen for the fascinating harmonies that accompany the oboe solo at around 1:51. Debussy layers a sixth interval on top of a fifth interval, creating (in effect) a fifth, a sixth, and a second interval all at the same time. When he orchestrates them so that they all move parallel to each other, the effect is a smooth, slightly eerie texture that creates a fantastic layer underneath the dry tones of the oboe.