Claude Debussy (1862–1918)
Although performed earlier with only the first two movements due to logistical difficulties, the first complete performance of Debussy’s Nocturnes occurred on 27 October 1901. Like Printemps it was inspired by extra-musical elements, this time the paintings of Whistler. Regarding the exact placement and role of the female choir Debussy noted in an unpublished letter dated 31 December 1903:
A propos du 3e Nocturne (avec voix de femmes) je vous demanderai de veiller à ce que les choristes soient placées dans l’orchestre et non devant, sans quoi il en résulterait un effet diamétralement oppose à celui que j’ai churché: il faut que ce groupe de voix n’ait pas plus d’importance sonore que tel autre groupe d’orchestre; en résumé, il ne doit pas avancer mais se mêler.
[With regard to the 3rd Nocturne (with female voices) I would ask you to ensure that the singers are placed within the orchestra and not in front of it, otherwise the resulting effect would be diametrically opposed to the sound I had in mind: it is essential that the group of voices should not be more prominent than any other group in the orchestra; in short, it must not stand out, it must blend in.]1
Debussy’s own description of the chorus’s role in “Sirènes” and Printemps implies that his approach was instrumental in conception. That these are not dramatic works, i.e., an opera or ballet, suggests that Debussy had the vocalise-étude tradition in mind.
Yet Debussy, in a sense, contradicts himself. The chorus in “Sirènes” remains seated throughout, thus partially removing itself from the audience’s direct view. The title “Sirènes” is an obvious reference to classical mythology where these mythical women are said to have lured sailors to their death with their erotically seductive song. These two components ally Debussy’s work with dramatic vocalization.
In addition, a note assumed to have been written by Debussy and inserted into the program for the first two performances states the following:
Sirènes: c’est la mer et son rythme innombrable, puis, parmi les vagues argentées de lune, s’entend, rit et passé le chant mystérieux des Sirènes.2
[Sirènes: This is the sea and its innumerable rhythms, which, among the waves silvered by the moon, hears itself, laughs and carries the mysterious song of the Siren.]
It would be the synthesis of instrument and mythical voice, of the vocalise-étude and dramatic vocalization, that would be the most significant development for and influence on the following generation of composers, not as mere concept, but as is found in the very music of “Sirènes” itself.
At the beginning of the movement low strings and harp provide a muted background centered on an F-sharp-major chord, like the piece’s predecessor Printemps. However, in this case, the F-sharp major of the movement’s introduction functions as dominant to the main part of the movement in B major. The initial motive presented by the horns (m. 1), is immediately echoed in measure 2 by the female chorus.
Debussy, Nocturnes, mvt. 3 “Sirènes,” m. 1
The interplay results in a rhythmically abbreviated form found in the chorus in measure 3.
Debussy, Nocturnes, mvt. 3 “Sirènes,” m. 3
After a repetition of the opening phrase, transposed up a minor third to A major, the music moves once more up a minor third to C before the introduction of a new theme in the English horn. This “new” theme is comprised of an intervallic expansion, repetition, and rhythmic transformation of the opening horn motive.
Debussy, Nocturnes, mvt. 3 “Sirènes,” mm. 12–14
The music builds to what could be considered a “wave crash.” After a second occurrence, both English horn and chorus trade entrances of an ascending whole-step gesture, taken from the opening theme, before the arrival of the first main section of the movement. At this arrival the pitches are reversed in order, now descending in motion, followed by their immediate repetition, creating as a result the main Siren theme.
Debussy, Nocturnes, mvt. 3 “Sirènes,” mm. 26–27
Additionally, a short motive, derived from the head portion of the English horn theme, appears as counterpoint to the Siren theme in the violins.
Debussy, Nocturnes, mvt. 3 “Sirènes,” m. 26
In both Printemps and “Sirènes” Debussy left the choice of vowel sound unspecified, other than a few occasions in the latter when à bouche fermée is indicated in the score (mm. 101–4 and 133–46). The lack of a vowel indication could be seen as an additional attempt to blur the distinction between chorus and orchestra, Debussy’s “mingling of colors.” 3 According to Denis Herlin:
At the time of the première of “Sirènes” in October 1901, Bergruen, chronicler of the Ménestrel, noted that the female voices [ . . . ] deployed shrewdly-graduated and rather melodic solfeggios on a vowel floating between “ah” and “oh.” 4
Later Debussy’s friend and assistant André Caplet produced an arrangement of the vocal parts that precisely indicates vocalization on the vowels “ah” and “oh” or on the syllable “la.” 5 This has led conductors to employ varying practices for the chorus.6
Debussy’s innovation was to take a formerly stage-oriented sound effect and re-work it into a non-dramatic context, first in Printemps, then later in “Sirènes.” Instead of using offstage voices, Debussy embedded the chorus into the orchestral body itself, having them seated. The singers are visibly present, yet situated contrary to standard choral tradition. His example served as a model to his youthful peers, who would take the idea and utilize it in many different genres.
Most examples of dramatic vocalization prior to Debussy—Massenet, Tchaikovsky, Mascagni, etc.—occur within a “song,” an aria played from beginning to end. Verdi’s approach (and that of d’Indy as well in Fervaal), where the chorus slips in and out of the dramatic action, foreshadows Debussy’s innovation. However, with “Sirènes” Debussy takes the musical ideas and incorporates them, interweaves them into an omnipresent musical fabric unlike anything heard before. This kind of motivic integration continues throughout the entire movement, blurring the line between voice and instrument, sea and shore, much like the calls of the mythical sirens that drew sailors to their rocky demise, and would be the primary factor influencing the following generation of composers.7
(Nauman 2009, 85–90)