To the end of his days Claude Debussy felt attracted to the compositional possibilities offered by a full orchestra. The result was a quantitatively small but musically all the more varied body of works for symphony orchestra (with or without solo instrument), beginning with the “Première Suite d'orchestre” (1882–84) and ending with the “Première Rhapsodie pour clarinette et orchestra” (1910). Largely abandoning classical forms, he allowed himself to be guided by extra-musical ideas. He sought inspiration in the mythology of Ancient Greece and especially in Nature, where he felt he had found an intuitive and eternal grasp of harmony:
“Who knows the secret to musical composition? The sound of the ocean, the shape of the horizon, the wind rustling the leaves, or the cry of a bird leaves us with multiple impressions. Then, all of a sudden and without our consent, one of these memories spills out from us and expresses itself in the language of music. It bears its harmony within itself” (Claude Debussy, 1911).
The musical language that Debussy developed at the fin de siècle seems as complex and inscrutable as Nature itself, and he used it to explore a wealth of colours never heard before. His four orchestral masterpieces – “Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune” (1891–94), “Trois Nocturnes” (1897–99), “La Mer” (1903–05) and “Images” (1905–12) – posed a challenge to listeners at the time they were written. Today, however, they are as popular as the paintings of the Impressionists. For despite his many innovations, Debussy was not an avant-garde radical, and his orchestral works are ravishing in the extraordinary beauty of their sound.
Each work tells a different story. Claude Debussy’s orchestral works in Bärenreiter Urtext editions