The title of Claude Debussy’s Three Nocturnes might seem to call up the nocturnal musical worlds of John Field and Chopin.
This is true, but only in a very roundabout way. Rather, Debussy, who maintained active connections with the visual arts, took the title from his friend James MacNeil Whistler’s series of semi-abstract works depicting nocturnal ambiance.
In this movement, depicting the drifting of clouds, Debussy relies on abstract, allusive gestures with minimal dramatic development or transformation over time, much like some of Whistler’s paintings.
Whistler, however, had initially not called his paintings “nocturnes,” but rather “moonlights.” “Nocturnes” had been suggested by Whistler’s patron, who was an avid fan of Chopin.