Claude Debussy: Refracting His Music through Art

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864–1901)
At the Cirque Fernando, Rider on a White Horse, 1887–1888
Pastel and drained oil on board
Norton Simon Art Foundation, M.1978.13.2.P

Much like Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Debussy lived the life of a Paris bohemian. The sights and sounds of the city, the gatherings of local avant-garde artists, and the vibrant café and entertainment culture in Montmartre were just as much an influence to Debussy as nature and the visual arts.

This movement from Debussy’s orchestral work Nocturnes, entitled Fêtes (Festivals or Holidays), is driven by a relentless rhythm that evokes the motion and excitement of the jovial scene, and the piece is laced with ornamental flurries like dazzling flashes of light in the vision of the spectator. Debussy’s written introduction to the piece reads, “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.” Debussy was inspired in part by his memories of holiday festivals and military band processions in the Bois de Boulogne, and his rendering of this music here is as though we are hearing these sounds as if through a distant memory or a fantasy.