Clouds, no two alike,
Slowly drift across the sky,
A painting that moves.
Debussy drew clouds
In the darkening sky with
Subtly shifting sounds.
He painted his scenes
In harmonies, in music,
As none had before.
‘Nuages’ renders the immutable aspect of the sky and the slow, solemn motion of the clouds, fading away in grey tones lightly tinged with white.1
When Claude Debussy premiered his set of three nocturnes, the first of which is Nuages [Clouds], critics were perplexed. They tried to explain its structure using traditional forms, but the explanations didn’t quite fit. One can imagine that Debussy might have responded, “Precisely.” He was moving away from traditional musical notions and toward something that had not yet been defined, or perhaps could not be defined.
How does one describe the beauty of a cloud?
Debussy was influenced by the paintings of James McNeill Whistler,2 one of a number of painters Debussy knew in Paris. You can see Whistler’s Nocturne paintings here (type “nocturne” in the search box).
Both artists sought to reinterpret the word “nocturne”:
Whistler: “By using the word ‘nocturne’ I wished to indicate an artistic interest alone, divesting the picture of any outside anecdotal interest which might have been otherwise attached to it. A nocturne is an arrangement of line, form and colour first.”3
Debussy: “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.”4
Debussy’s music combines elements that are changing, evolving, with elements that remain the same—moving clouds against a static sky, with colors changing slowly as night falls.
When was the last time you got to sit quietly and watch the clouds go by? It has probably been too long.
I think I hear a cumulus calling me.
- Dorment, Richard and MacDonald, Margaret F. James McNeill Whistler, published by Harry N. Abrams, 1995, p 122 via http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/whistler-nocturne-blue-and-silver-chelsea-t01571
- Brook, Donald. Five great French composers: Berlioz, César Franck, Saint-Saëns, Debussy, Ravel: Their Lives and Works. Ayer Publishing. p. 168 via https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nocturnes_(Debussy)
Nocturne – Blue and Silver – Chelsea, James Abbott McNeill Whistler [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nocturne:_Blue_and_Silver_%E2%80%93_Chelsea