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#SundaySong: Debussy’s Nocturnes, L. 91, No. 1, Nuages

Whether you’re a classical music lover or not, many of us have probably heard a famous classical music song about the moon, like Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. 

I wanted to share a slightly less well-known classical tune, to accompany a beautiful painting from our collection, Ralph Blakelock’s Rising Moon.

Ralph Blakelock, Rising Moon painting

Rising Moon, late 1800s, Ralph Albert Blakelock (American, 1847–1919), Oil on canvas, Max. B. and Lalla B. Arnstein Collection, 1962.20.13.

While a more likely choice would have been Debussy’s Clair de lune, I think that his Nocturnes, Nuages (Clouds), is a more interesting choice. Look at the painting while listening to the recording above. I love how it feels cinematic, and how Nuages underlines the mystery, beauty, and darkness in Blakelock’s rendering of the moon rising.

Blakelock started his career painting the grandiose Hudson River School landscapes popular in his day, but quickly developed a distinct technique using dark tones and a less naturalistic, even mystical, style to depict nature. He used thick layers of paint and experimental materials such as bitumen (coal tar), which probably accounts for this painting’s extensive crackling even as it lends rich, transparent color to the work.

By the late 1800s, Blakelock almost exclusively painted nighttime landscapes. Soon after, he suffered a nervous breakdown and spent the rest of his life in an asylum—a tragedy that ironically increased the commercial value of his paintings.

The song Nuages (Clouds) is part of what is sometimes called Debussy’s Trois Nocturnes (Three Nocturnes), written between 1892 and 1899––around the same time Blakelock created our painting. He said of the piece:

“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.

-Debussy quoted in Claude Debussy: His Life and Works

While Debussy wrote Nuages to express thunderclouds, I believe that listening to the colors of the piece helps illuminate Blakelock’s moody, nighttime world.