"Clair de Lune"—Debussy's Masterpiece From "Suite Bergamasque"
Claude Debussy, Genius Behind the Music
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 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 Piano in 1893
Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Liszt, Verdi.
The Boy and 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:
- Began piano lessons at the age of 7
- 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 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
- 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 early. 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.
Let us at all costs preserve this magic peculiar to music...— Achille-Claude Debussy
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 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
The Magic and Mystery of "Claire de Lune" Set to Beautiful Images
Many have been so inspired by this piece, they have set the music to images, as seen in the videos below.
The four movements of Suite Bergamasque:
- "Clair de Lune"
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:
- 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 piano, Suite Bergamasque.
How Do You Rate Claire de Lune?
A Composition That Captures the Magic Debussy Talked About
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.
Questions & Answers
© 2007 Athlyn Green