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Nocturnes is an orchestral composition in three movements by the French composer Claude Debussy. It was completed December 15, 1899.



The three movements are:

  • I. Nuages ("Clouds")
  • II. Fêtes ("Festivals")
  • III. Sirènes ("Sirens")

The three movements were inspired by a series of impressionist paintings, also entitled "Nocturnes" by James McNeill Whistler.

Debussy wrote an "introductory note" to the Nocturnes as follows:

"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. '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. 'Fêtes' gives us the vibrating, dancing rhythm of the atmosphere with sudden flashes of light. There is also the episode of the procession (a dazzling fantastic vision), which passes through the festive scene and becomes merged in it. But the background remains resistantly the same: the festival with its blending of music and luminous dust participating in the cosmic rhythm. 'Sirènes' depicts the sea and its countless rhythms and presently, amongst the waves silvered by the moonlight, is heard the mysterious song of the Sirens as they laugh and pass on."

Nuages and Fêtes were premiered by Camille Chevillard with the Lamoureux Orchestra on 9 December 1900 in Paris. The complete suite was first heard under the same forces on 27 October 1901. The initial performances met with a cool response from critics and the public, but today these are considered some of Debussy's most accessible and popular works, admired for their beauty. The music lasts for about 22 minutes.


It is scored for three flutes, two oboes, cor anglais, two clarinets in B-flat, three bassoons, four horns in F, three trumpets in F, three trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, snare drum, two harps, wordless female chorus, and strings.


  • The complete work has been transcribed for double piano by Maurice Ravel.
  • Fêtes has been arranged for solo piano by the English pianist Leonard Borwick, and the arrangement has been recorded by Emil Gilels, among others. [1]
  • Fêtes has also been transcribed for large symphonic wind ensemble by Merlin Patterson (2007).

External links


Simple English

This article is about the orchestral suite by Claude Debussy. For other musical compositions called "Nocturne", see Nocturne.

Nocturnes is a piece of music for orchestra by the French composer Claude Debussy. There are three movements. A female chorus also sings in the last movement. Debussy finished writing "Nocturnes" on 15 December 1899.

The music

The three movements each have a title. They are:

  • I. Nuages ("Clouds")
  • II. Fêtes ("Festivals")
  • III. Sirènes ("Sirens")

A large portion of Debussy’s music, including his nocturnes, is inspired by the works of the Impressionist painters. The word nocturne (from the Latin nocturnus) usually describes a piece that is inspired by the night. However, Debussy's Nocturnes do not follow this patter; rather, they capture the way light is shown in Impressionist paintings.

'Nuages' is about the clouds in the sky and the way they move slowly in grey colours with a little white.

'Fêtes' is a very lively picture of a group of people having a celebration and dancing. A procession is heard arriving. The music of the procession gradually gets louder, mixes with the music of the dancing, then it gradually dies away as the procession disappears into the distance.

'Sirènes' describes the sea and the many rhythms that can be heard when we listen to it. The moonlight shines on the sea, and the mysterious song of the Sirens is heard as they laugh.

First performances

The Lamoureux Orchestra conducted by Camille Chevillard gave the first performance of Nuages and Fêtes in Paris in 1900, and they played the first performance of all three movements the next year. Some of the listeners found it hard to understand at first, but today "Nocturnes" is one of Debussy’s most popular works.

The music lasts for about 22 minutes.


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