I first posted about Clair de Lune back in April of 2013; that post has been revised and expanded here.
Here’s a post for Monday, the day of the moon (from Old English mōnandæg; mōna = moon and dæg = day). Or, in French, the native language of today’s featured composer, Claude Debussy (1862-1918), lundi (from Latin Lunae dies).
Clair de Lune (Moonlight) is the third, and by far the best known, of the four movements of Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque. His inspiration was a poem of the same name by Paul Verlaine (1844-1896), translated from the French here:
Your soul is as a moonlit landscape fair,
Peopled with maskers delicate and dim,
That play on lutes and dance and have an air
Of being sad in their fantastic trim.
The while they celebrate in minor strain
Triumphant love, effective enterprise,
They have an air of knowing all is vain,—
And through the quiet moonlight their songs rise,
The melancholy moonlight, sweet and lone,
That makes to dream the birds upon the tree,
And in their polished basins of white stone
The fountains tall to sob with ecstasy.
Many will recognize Clair de Lune because it’s been used in so many movies over the years; at least one person has even written a graduate thesis analyzing its use various films. Some might feel the piece has become a bit of a cliché, and yet the fact that it’s been so often tapped by filmmakers speaks to the mood it’s able to convey so effectively. Among other things, I hear hope, romance, a sense of calm.
For me, two stretches are especially gorgeous. The first, from 1:01-1:16 starts with the left hand gently playing an E-flat octave in the piano’s lower register, immediately followed, in the higher register, by a series of shimmering octaves…I imagine the moonlight appearing from behind a cloud right at this moment. The second, from 1:49-2:13, is a beautiful, melodic line in the right hand over rolling, arpeggiated chords in the left hand. (The pianist here is Angela Hewitt, a consummate pro; notice how she didn’t flinch one bit at 2:35, when there’s what seems to me a disconcertingly loud bang somewhere in the recital hall).
In addition to being an apt post for a Monday, this strikes me as a fitting post for today, the first day of spring. If the ‘sound’ of moonlight varies by season, I submit that Debussy’s music sounds more like spring moonlight than winter moonlight.
In April of 2013, when I first posted about this work, I admired it as someone who’d never played it. And that’s something that’s changed; over the last few months, I’ve been working on the piece and am preparing to play it on Saturday–along with a piece by Bach; talk about a study in contrasts!–in a small competition I’ve participated in the last several years. It feels great to play those beautiful passages I mentioned earlier, but it will always be a challenge to give them their due. And that’s good, because that means there’s always something to strive for.
Take a listen and see what this piece conjures for you. Happy Moon Day; Happy Spring.
Here’s one of many examples of Clair de Lune (transcribed for orchestra) showing up in a film, complete with water show at the Bellagio.