Clair de lune

Composer: 

            While others, notably Franz Liszt, were on the forefront of stylistic change during the nineteenth century, it is surely Claude Debussy who forever established entirely new ways of thinking about the fundamental ways of defining and composing music in Western culture.   More than anyone, he truly was the father of much of the philosophical basis for the complete turnover in musical art that defined the twentieth century.  And, along the way, he composed some of the most original, creative, and dare we say, beautiful music in the repertoire.  His name, of course, is indelibly linked with what is popularly called “musical impressionism,” but that doesn’t really specifically tell you much.  What you may say is that he largely worked within a musical style that made little use of so many of the characteristics of a musical tradition that really dominated the concert halls of the 18th and 19th centuries.   Most of us are familiar with concepts such as sonata form; development; key relationships; major and minor tonalities, with their respective scales, counterpoint, fugues, and especially “developing” musical ideas in an ongoing linear fashion. As dominant as these procedures were, Debussy saw others ways of creating and working with musical ideas.  His specifically French way of looking at things was quite a contrast to the ideas and methods of the German-speaking composers (all names we know so well!) that had dominated concert halls for a couple of centuries.  There was opera, to be sure, and Italians had always held sway there, but in abstract music (no words) the Germans were generally king.  Along comes Debussy with a refreshing alternative æsthetic.

            In a nutshell Debussy was not much interested in systems of musical composition, wherein each part—large or small—had a rational, expected, and traditional relationships to every other part.  Rather, he focused upon listening to musical sounds in new ways—considering them just for their intrinsic sound, and not how they might fit into a hierarchy as a mere building block.  He opened up new ways of composing and listening, and the musical world was changed forever.

            The universally loved “Claire de lune” is the third movement of a suite for solo piano entitled, Suite bergamasque, which Debussy began composing in 1890, when he was twenty-eight years old.   So, it's a relatively early work, giving us some insight into his development as a composer. When the suite was published in 1905, Debussy had revised it somewhat. Its four movements—after their titles (or original titles)--allude to dances of the distant past, but the more relevant association is with the work of the symbolist poet, Paul Verlaine.   Debussy left no doubt that his creative life was heavily influenced by both literature and painting—even expressing some regret for not having become a painter rather than a musician.  And while the “impressionism” of painting is clear as a metaphor for much of his musical work, it basic to understanding his musical psyche to appreciate the influence that the “symbolist” poets—Verlaine, Malarmé, and others—had in his style.  Beginning during his student years Debussy had composed a series of melodies (songs), many of which were set to texts by Verlaine, whose poetry Debussy later used for many of his major compositions.

            Suite bergamasque takes it name from an allusion in Verlaine’s poem, Claire de lune, and, of course, the title of the poem is also the title of the evergreen third movement of Debussy’s suite.  The movement has no other meaning than that of a delicate evocation of the idea in the title.  Fundamental to the “sound” of French music of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century is the delicate blend of orchestra colors that unequivocally suggests “Debussy” and “Ravel” to concert audiences.  Arthur Luck—a former member and librarian of the Philadelphia Orchestra—has masterfully recreated that sound in this artful arrangement of the familiar piano work.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan