Bernard Haitink - Concertgebouw Amsterdam Orchestra
Women's voices of the Collegium Musicum Amstelodamense
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Debussy's "Nocturnes" had a fairly complicated evolution. He first mentioned them as "Trois Scenes au Crepuscule" in 1892 in connexion with a projected visit to America. This version was prompted by certain of Henri de Regnier's "Poemes Anciens et Romanesques," published in 1890, one of which speaks of "the brilliance of angry tambourines and sharp trumpet calls," a phrase that reminds us of "Fetes." The next stage was signalled by a letter of September 1894 in which Debussy told the great violinist Eugene Ysaye that he was composing some "Nocturnes" for violin and orchestra. Given his active concern with the other arts, it is not surprising that he admired the painter Whistler's "Nocturnes," and he appropriated the title from here rather than from Chopin or even Faure. In fact, Debussy said to Ysaye that his "Nocturnes" were "an experiment in the different arrangements of a single colour, like a study in grey in painting."
That sounds like "Nuages," first of the "Nocturnes" in their definitive form. This has organum-like parallel harmonies through which lonely, desolate cor anglais phrases wander, unconnected with the cloud music, as if symbolising human isolation. The human voice itself is heard in "Sirenes" to magical effect, but remote and without words; perhaps this is the "wan choir" of another of de Regnier's poems. Between comes "Fetes," which Debussy spoke of as "a dazzling procession passing through a festive scene and merging with it." This final version of the "Nocturnes" was started during 1897 and completed in December 1899. "Nuages" and "Fetes" were premiered on December 9, 1900 at the Concerts Lamoureux under Camille Chevillard; the three were first heard together on October 27, 1901.
The "Nocturnes" marked an advance on Debussy's previous orchestral work, "Prelude a I'apres-midi d'un faune" (1894), but by the time he composed "Jeux" he occupied a far more radical position. This piece is cast in a continuous, associative form, advancing from one point to the next without recapitulations; as Herbert Eimert's masterly analysis demonstrates, there are 23 thematic motives and these constantly interact and develop. Yet despite this score's complexity it was written at speed, mainly in the first three weeks of August 1912; the manuscript carries several dates, the last being September 2.
This was a commission from Serge Diaghilev for his Ballets Russes, a company which had just given "Prelude a I'apres-midi d'un faune" with choreography by the virtuoso dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. In a letter to "Le Matin" Debussy described the work thus: "Diaghilev spoke to me of a scenario devised by Nijinsky, consisting of some kind of subtle transparency, the basis, I agreed, for a ballet. In this scenario there is a park, a tennis court; there is a chance meeting of two girls and a young man seeking a lost ball, a nocturnal, mysterious landscape, and a suggestion of something sinister in the darkening shadows."
"Jeux" was produced at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees on May 13, 1913 (later that month Loie Fuller presented ballets on "Nuages" and "Sirenes"). It had a poor reception, partly because of questionable aspects of Nejinsky's choreography. But the main reason was the music, which, like Debussy's late sonatas and piano Etudes, is highly elusive; it has taken several decades for it to be appreciated at its true worth.
-Max Harrison (1979)