In September 1894 Debussy wrote to the Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe about three nocturnes for solo violin and orchestra that he was composing for him. (Ysaÿe’s quartet had given the first performance of Debussy’s String Quartet the previous year.) In the first of these pieces the orchestra was to consist of strings alone, in the second of flutes, horns, trumpets and harps, while in the third all of these instruments would come together. Debussy told Ysaÿe how he wanted to experiment with the different combinations possible with a single colour in the same way that a painter might make a study in grey. Two years later Debussy referred to these nocturnes again, implying that they had been completed, and still hoping that Ysaÿe would be the one to play them. Although this was not to be—for, by the time the Trois Nocturnes
came to performance, there was no part for solo violin—he was able to tell Debussy in 1903 that he had decided to conduct them. It is not possible now to determine how closely the final version of the Nocturnes
resembles either the piece Debussy was writing for Ysaÿe or yet an even earlier work, the Trois scènes au crépuscule
, that some consider to have been its true precursor.
The first performance of the Nocturnes was planned for 9 December 1900, but in the event only the first two movements were played because the female chorus required for ‘Sirènes’ was not available. It was not until 27 October 1901 that the work was heard complete for the first time. At about this time, Ravel, in collaboration with Debussy’s stepson and pupil Raoul Bardac, began work on a transcription of the Nocturnes for two pianos. This was not given its first performance, however, until 24 April 1911 when Ravel and Louis Aubert played it at the Salle Gaveau in Paris.
from notes by Peter Avis © 1999