Debussy’s symphonic works aim to illustrate a particular scene by using specific musical textures, themes, or orchestration. In the case of his Nocturnes, the three-movement piece was written after a collection of paintings by the American impressionist painter James McNeill Whistler. Whistler spent the majority of his life in London and Paris, which is undoubtedly where Debussy learned of Whistler’s work. Although the Whistler paintings were originally called Moonlights, he later retitled them Nocturnes, purposefully implying a musical connection. Debussy’s Nocturnes consist of three movements: Nuages (Clouds), Fêtes (Celebrations), and Sirènes (Sirens). One can almost hear Whistler’s cool and silvery blue hues or his shadowy green light in Debussy’s unforgettable musical imagery. Debussy’s own introductory note for the first performance of the Nocturnes is 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 the sea, infinite in its rhythms. Then, from waves lit silver by the moon, the Sirens' song emerges, laughs, and fades back away.
Bernstein: Symphony No. 3 (“Kaddish”)