09 Oct 2015

Debussy – Claire de lune

Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918): “Claire de lune” from Suite Bergamasque (arr. André Caplet)

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons; 2 horns; harpsichord; strings

Performance time: 4 minutes


With his compatriot Ravel, Claude Debussy is considered the father of Impressionism in music. The dates are certainly right; Debussy was born in 1862, and Impressionism in painting began to take shape in the 1870s. But what does Impressionism in music mean? In painting we can see how the fleeting impression is captured, how light and air fill the canvas rather than an arrangement of solid objects. By now we are comfortable viewing the paintings of Renoir, Monet and their colleagues, and their works have gained such widespread popularity that we must remind ourselves how Impressionist paintings shocked the eye back in the 1870s: The colors seemed strangely bright, the shadowy neutrals were gone, and the paintings rendered impressions of light rather than the world of objects in space. Yet somehow that world materializes before us as we simply relax and look.
Though Debussy edged away from traditional major and minor keys, he did not eliminate traditional tonal centers, but “blurred” them. Employing exotic harmonies and the “perfect” scale comprised only of whole steps – with only seven integral notes in play, we can’t even use the term “octave” – Debussy’s music accustoms us to tonal evocations of mood and atmosphere that function as light does in Impressionist paintings. His instrumental color, texture and meandering harmonies ignore traditional combinations. Where Impressionist paintings leave the world of objects behind, Impressionist music goes beyond earlier conventions of harmonic and rhythmic development, moving from one bar to the next in a spontaneous, organic flow. That said, Impressionist music continues to challenge us as listeners a bit more than Impressionist painting does. If we are less comfortable with Debussy and Ravel than with Renoir and Monet, that may not be such a bad thing; as the art critic Sister Wendy Beckett reminds us, the trick is to come to each work of art as something new, approaching it with courage and without preconceptions, opening ourselves to the experience it offers.
Debussy started work on the Suite Bergamasque around 1890. It is a piano suite of four movements, of which the third – “Clair de Lune” – is by far the most popular and most often programmed.

What to Listen For

First, let’s note the masterful orchestral arrangement by André Caplet. A contemporary of Ravel and Debussy who won the Prix du Rome one year ahead of Ravel, Caplet worked closely with Debussy, even acting as his translator at times. In orchestrating the suite, Caplet had to live up to the French reputation for masterful orchestration; this work and his orchestration of the Children’s Corner Suite remain Caplet’s most frequently programmed arrangements, with “Clair de Lune” his single most popular movement by far.

Though music dictionaries trace the term “bergamasque” to rustic dances from the Italian town of Bergamo, the sound of “Clair de Lune” is anything but rustic. Its sound is elegant and luminous. Moonlight has been an irresistible subject for composers, and this movement is one of its most famous evocations – along with Beethoven’s “Moonlight” sonata for piano and the melody from Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto which became the pop song “Full Moon and Empty Arms.” What we hear in these four beautiful minutes seems to suspend time and movement – hardly the stuff of dance. It remains rooted in its opening key of D-flat major, budging only for an unexpected modulation into E major – distant in harmonic terms, but very close on the scale.

If you haven’t yet heard “Clair de Lune” in the concert hall or on recording, you may have heard it at the movies – in films such as Giant (1956), Casino Royale (1967) and Ocean’s Eleven (2001).