The Claude Debussy Clair de Lune, released in 1905 and today a favorite of piano students and concert pianists alike, presents the challenge of an emotional interpretation. I look at the piece from contemporary and historical perspectives here, as part of GRAND PIANO PASSION™’s well-regarded Classical Piano Music Amplified™ series.
Advice from Ricker Choi, Performing Amateur Pianist
The name Clair de Lune comes from Paul Verlaine’s poem of the same name. When I listen to or perform Clair de Lune, however, I don’t necessarily need to conjure up the poem’s imagery; the music speaks to me directly.
I think there is always this debate between program music and absolute music. To me the Debussy Clair de Lune might have been inspired by a program (the poem in this case), but once the music is composed, it now becomes its own poetry. The poem is no longer needed to comprehend this beautiful piece of work.
When I perform Clair de Lune, the opening feels like waves to me, as if I am floating in mid-air, moving like a feather on the whims of a gentle night breeze.
Then at 0:39 when the bass comes in to support the theme, I feel a sense of wonder. Wonder at the beauty of the world.
At 1:06 when the deep deep bass comes in, I feel the earth rumble from deep down, channeling the energy through me.
Then at 1:57, I feel like I am in the ocean, floating along its wavy ebbs and flows.
Around 2:27, when it floats higher and higher, the ocean carries me higher and higher—reaching the moon.
2:41—it is now deep night… no sound, just silence and darkness.
At 3:09, the moon shines through, reflecting on a beautiful, calm lake. I am the moonbeam itself.
“I’ve always loved the Clair de Lune, but when I started performing seven years ago, I focused on music that at least appeared to be more technically challenging. Recently, I have come to realize that if a piece feels musically challenging to learn, then I probably don’t truly understand that piece of work yet. Therefore, from now on, I have decided to learn music that speaks to me at this point in time, like the Clair de Lune. If I hear a piece, and immediately I have an emotional connection, and I find myself thinking how I might play it differently, then I know that I ought to learn it. So after studying the Clair de Lune, I performed it in a fundraising concert in earlier this year.”
Rhythm in the Debussy Clair de Lune
The first beat in the Debussy Clair de Lune is a rest, followed by a note deep in the bass and then an alto third. This first measure leads us to expect a beat of two rather than three, says concert pianist and scholar Paul Roberts in Images: The Piano Music of Claude Debussy (Amadeus Press, 1996). This “rhythmic ambiguity” gives the pianist the freedom to experiment with rubato. In fact, throughout the piece, Roberts advises, Debussy avoids any regularity in beat or phrase—for example, by alternating triplets and duplets. “The result is a sense of floating, a dreamy suspension of momentum,” an exquisite moonlit landscape.
Remembrances from Maurice Dumesnil, a Pianist and Contemporary of Debussy
“Debussy greeted me with a placid courtesy. He talked little, but the words he said were significant…. I played the [Clair de Lune] for him. The matter of the triplet values came up. He found them too strictly in time…. He advised me to depress the two pedals before starting, so that the overtones would vibrate immediately upon contact…. Concerning the second section of Clair de Lune, he said, ‘The left-hand arpeggios should be fluid, mellow, drowned in pedal, as if played by a harp on a background of strings.’ But he did not tolerate any confusion and insisted on the purity of each harmonic pattern.” (From Debussy Remembered by Roger Nichols, Amadeus Press, 1992)
The Debussy Clair De Lune’s Origins in Poetry
Debussy revered the poetry of the French writer Paul Verlaine, “who brought a new delicacy and musicality to French versification,” writes Paul Roberts. One of Verlaine’s collections, entitled Fetes galantes, opened with the poem “Clair de lune,” in which masked actors danced and played the lute, who were…
Almost sad beneath their fanciful disguises.
All the while singing in the minor mode
Of victorious love and a life of good fortune,
They sometimes seem to doubt their happiness
And their singing mingles with the moonlight,
The still moonlight, sad and beautiful…
On the Pitfall of Clair de Lune’s Popularity
“Clair de Lune is slaughtered in public more often than it is revealed!” exclaims E. Robert Schmitz. “Possibly the most important requirement for a good performance of this work is to insure that no ‘bench-in-the-park’ scene be part of it. It must be contemplative and trustful,” Schmitz advises in The Piano Works of Claude Debussy (Dover, 1966). Yet despite its risks, the music, filled with delicate feeling, “conveys through its precious harmonies the silvery atmosphere of the moonlight. Its elusive before-the-beat and after-the-beat yearnings spirit us away.”
look insideClair de lune (from Suite Bergamasque)
By Claude Debussy (1862-1918). Edited by Willard A. Palmer. For Piano. Masterworks; Piano Solo; Solo. Alfred Masterwork Edition. Impressionistic; Masterwork. SMP Level 9 (Advanced). Book. 8 pages. Published by Alfred Music Publishing (AP.2160)