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"Clair de Lune": Debussy's Masterpiece From "Suite Bergamasque"

Athlyn Green discusses musical talent and explores different musical styles ranging from classical to rock.

Claude Debussy in 1908

Claude Debussy in 1908

Debussy Composes Suite Bergamasque

"Clair de Lune" is considered one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written. Debussy's genius shines throughout this piece. He wrote this composition in 1890 at the tender age of 25—an amazing feat for someone so young but it demonstrated his grasp of composition, which he employed so skillfully to produce a work that has become a timeless classic.

"Claire de Lune" (as we know it today) was not published until 1905. Its original name was “Promenade Sentimentale.” It underwent revision before publication. By that time, publishers were eager to cash in on Debussy's growing fame. The new title for the movement came from a poem written by Paul Verlaine that meant moonlight.

It is the third movement of Suite Bergamasque, one of the most loved and revered piano suites of Debussy. A masterpiece from the Impressionist epoch, it brings to mind moonlight, mist, and raindrops and evokes a number of emotions as it progresses.

Every once in a while, a person hears a piano piece and is so moved that even if only a novice piano player, they decide that if they learn one piece only, that that one is the one. For many, that one piece has been "Claire de Lune." Unsurprisingly, this haunting piece has been played by pianists the world over who have strived to master its intricacies and do it justice.

From Humble Beginnings...

Achille-Claude Debussy was born into a poor family, but he would go on to become one of the most important French composers working within the embrace of Impressionist music. His music encapsulates the transition from Romantic to Modernist music. In literary circles, his music was known as Symbolism.

Debussy playing in front of composer Ernest Chausson in 1893

Debussy playing in front of composer Ernest Chausson in 1893

Musical Influences

Debussy was influenced by Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Liszt, and Verdi.

The Man Behind the Music

Claude was born in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France, in 1862. He showed musical talent very early and the momentum only continued to build:

  • He began piano lessons at the age of seven.
  • At 11 he entered the Paris Conservatoire.
  • At the age of 22, in 1884, he won the Prix de Rome with his cantata L'Enfant prodigue in a competition for composers.
  • He later received a scholarship to the Academie des Beaux-Arts.
  • During the years 1888-1893, he composed Ariettes oubliées, Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, and String Quartet.
  • By 1895, he produced his opera, Pelléas et Mélisande.
  • By the early 1900s, he was considered a leading figure in French music and had produced more notable works.
  • He was made Chevalier of the Legion of Honour in 1903.
  • By 1905, Suite Bergamasque was published.

Debussy's Death During World War I

Debussy left this world too soon. He died March 25, 1918, at the age of 55, as German armies entered and attacked France.

Loved and Hated

Debussy thought outside the box, and even as a lad, he was known to innovate.This would influence his later compositions. Though his skills progressed, his style of playing was considered unorthodox for the time, as he frequently utilized the whole tone scale and harmony, which gave his music a dream-like quality. He challenged established norms and was criticized for courting the unusual by utilizing rhythmic ambiguity and avoiding regularity in beat or phrase.

His work was loved and hated, praised and criticized, depending on who listened. While he spent his later years composing and performing, he would come to find public performances increasingly trying. He was humble and may have underestimated his own talent.

As is the case with many prodigies and musical geniuses, the compulsion to create something of beauty was more of a force than striving to be in the spotlight or impressing others. His nonconformity in his music also played out in his personal life, one marked by thoughts of suicide, scandalous love affairs, and an illegitimate daughter. His highly sensitive personality, his intensity, his bending of the rules, did not equip him for smooth passage in the world at large, but he raised the musical bar, producing work that both whetted listeners appetites and that had enormous impact, music that stood the test of time.

Debussy Said it Best

"Let us at all costs preserve this magic peculiar to music..."

— Achille-Claude Debussy

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A Masterpiece That Stirs the Senses

"Claire de Lune" is considered by many challenging to learn and is a demanding piece for performers to interpret and execute. The composition includes a number of sharped notes and a shift to E Major and spans across a number of pages

It starts out in the key of D-flat Major with a dreamy gentle opener, Andante tres expressif, which magnifies with a fuller repeat with chords, building momentum, then includes an octave section that segues into chords in Tempo rubato and then a pause, dim. molto, as if drawing a breath, before moving into the show stopper, a fast section in a wonderful rendering the reminds one of many raindrops pattering down on glittering water and that evokes a feeling of joy as it reaches a crescendo. By this time, most listeners are spellbound. The piece concludes with a reprise.

The work could be described as embodying: innocence, gentleness, hopefulness, poignancy, heartbreak, power, joyfulness, exuberance, reflection, peace. So many emotions are encapsulated within. Many, upon hearing this piece have been moved to tears.

In sum, Debussy has captured moonlight and magic remarkably. And all who have beauty in their souls come away touched after listening to this masterpiece.

A Beloved Section of "Claire de Lune"

A Beloved Section of "Claire de Lune"

Debussy was a nonconformist and the genius behind a remarkable piece of music.

Debussy was a nonconformist and the genius behind a remarkable piece of music.

Many have been so inspired by "Claire de Lune," they have set the music to images, as seen in the videos below.

Movements of Suite Bergamasque

The four movements of Suite Bergamasque:

  1. "Prelude"
  2. "Menuet"
  3. "Clair de Lune"
  4. "Passepied"

Used in Best-Selling Movies

Exceptional music is timeless and thus it resonates with generation after generation. So, too, with Debussy's masterpiece. While it is generally rare for classical pieces to be incorporated into modern culture, the ethereally beautiful "Claire de Lune" has been used in many movies, such as:

  • Twilight
  • Casino Royale
  • Seven Years in Tibet
  • Down and Out in Beverly Hills
  • Ocean's Eleven

As well, it has been used in TV series and in mini-series.

Did You Know?

Debussy was one of the most highly regarded composers. And his music still has the power to touch millions.

"Claire de Lune" Facts

  • Who: Composer Claude Debussy, one of the most important French composers who had an impact on impressionist music.
  • Why: Inspired by Paul Verlaine's poems and was probably influenced by Verlaine's earliest collections. The name means moonshine or moonlight and is the name of one of Verlain's poems.
  • When: Debussy wrote "Claire de Lune" in 1890 and published it later.
  • What: The third movement for the suite entitled, Suite Bergamasque.

A Composition That Captures Magic

Claude Debussy was one of the most influential composers of the 20th century. His harmonies would later influence other composers and different musical genres, his sensitive and emotionally charged music would transition well into movies, but "Claire de Lune" is still considered one of his best offerings to the world, a composition that captures the magic that Debussy talked about.

© 2007 Athlyn Green


paul prince on May 10, 2020:

beautiful article,thankyou. I too became entranced as a young lad hearing my sister play it on piano. I agree this music casts a spell on some listeners. Though I had no idea what it would entail, I decided someday.... I would have that music coming out of my guitar soundhole - and about 30 yrs later I actually got it done, also from studying guitarists of other styles like Segovia, and Lenny Breau. I observe there are 2 ways to play it, guitaristically (which is sad as it does not take into account pedal work , sustain etc ) and as he intended pianistically meaning all those pools of resonant beauty intact -places in his weaving genius Debussy held a note over into the new measure, I feel these must be addressed accurately on guitar or the magic disappears - to preserve the sound. This speaks to tone consciousness, requires big stretches, finger yoga and alot of persistence in essence, love. I agree this is the most beautiful, emotional, story like, colorful and imaginative piece of music ever written. Happy to say I will have my recording of this out soon as a single .

Margaret Perrottet from San Antonio, FL on November 22, 2012:

Wonderful hub. I used to play this piece on the piano, and always loved it. It makes me want to get back to playing again - haven't played in years. I put a link to this hub on my hub about Who Wrote the Adagio in G Minor. Voting your hub up, beautiful, interesting and sharing.

jamila sahar on February 03, 2012:

Beautiful hub, on one of my favorite pieces. It is a sentimental piece for me as my father used to play this frequently and brings back a lot of pleasant memories. Thanks for sharing this.

Athlyn Green (author) from West Kootenays on November 02, 2011:


Yes, it is so beautiful. I'm not familiar with the other composition--will have to check it out and have a listen.

IJR112 on November 02, 2011:

I too love this piece of music. I play it a lot and listen to it frequently too. For whatever reason, I feel like his Reflets Dans L'eau is better though.

Athlyn Green (author) from West Kootenays on June 24, 2011:

Claire de Lune has captured emotions around the world and remains timeless. Debussy may have passed on but his music lives forever.

Lisa on September 12, 2010:

This, I guess is one of my top favorites, if not my absolute favorite, and never fails to reduce me to tears when I'm in a vulnerable mood!

Lara on December 28, 2008:


MayB on December 17, 2008:

And now this song use in twilight

moonlit-fish on July 20, 2008:

Hi~I'm a 14ys old student from Taiwan and I found this website by an accident. I'm just saying that I love this piece, too! I think it's the best one I've ever played! Nice to meet someone who also likes Clair de Lune.

Athlyn Green (author) from West Kootenays on December 23, 2007:

Hi Warren,

I would try typing in "guitar music for Claire de Lune" in your browser and see what comes up. You also may be able to order it from a music store.

warren on December 12, 2007:


Like raindrops..

I am curious as to the whereabouts of sheet music for guitar for this piece of music.

Thanks for any advice.


Athlyn Green (author) from West Kootenays on October 24, 2007:

Hi Jim,

Thank you for your comments. It's great to hear from others who also love this piece.

James Denice from las vegas NV on October 24, 2007:

I love music and also play

this is a beautiful pieces of music

I have been reading some of your pages nice work


Athlyn Green (author) from West Kootenays on October 17, 2007:

Thank you, me too! I never tire of listening to it and am trying to commit it to memory--no small task as the sheet music is around 7 pages.

Barry Rutherford from Queensland Australia on October 17, 2007:

Yes I like the piece very much. Well done...

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