B is for Bergamasque; C is for Clair de Lune

17,217,253. That is the number of views which YouTube’s top-ranking video of Debussy’s Clair de Lune had when I started research for this post a few days ago. The views now number 17,259,512 – over 42,000 more. Successive generations of pianists have fallen under the piece’s spell since its publication in 1905. My grandmother and my mother learnt it. I learnt it. Now my pupils clamour to learn it, influenced by Twilight. Its appeal is so popular that it can even be studied via YouTube in various tutorials which currently have thousands of views.

It comes from Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque, a collection of four pieces, of which three have Suite-like titles; a Prélude, and two dance movements: Menuet and Passepied. The titles are entangled with the poetry of Paul Verlaine, whose collection Fêtes galantes contains a Clair de lune – set as a song by Debussy –  which uses the word bergamasque. The piano piece was originally named Promenade Sentimentale after a Verlaine poem, and the Passepied was originally a Pavane: again, a Verlaine title.

Clair de Lune is in D flat major, with a key signature of five flats; a luscious choice – think of the big, sweeping melody in Khatchaturian’s Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia, and Liszt’s Un Sospiro. It is in compound triple time with an occasional duplet, and it needs a persuasive rubato, a flowing, even accompaniment of semiquavers in the middle section, and a warm tone which is sometimes veiled, leading to exploration of pedalling and sound quality; all sorts of teaching points there and many others too, but one of the piece’s greatest benefits is that pupils really want to play it, so motivation is usually assured. Here is Paul Crossley:

The Prélude opens the Suite with a grand flourish and a broad theme at a sensible speed; a good start to a recital’s first or second half. The middle section gives scope for exploration of more distant keys and modulations, but it is all comfortably tonal and accessible, with no real surprises. Here is Gieseking:

The Menuet is quite sprightly with a beguiling modality and some delightfully unexpected twists and turns; deft fingerwork is demanded for its quasi-baroque ornamented melody. The thirds need some practice, too. A real charmer, which soon abandons its well-behaved intentions for a more full-blooded expansiveness. Gieseking again:

The final movement, a Passepied, opens with a lightly buoyant staccato LH  accompaniment reminiscent of pizzicato cellos, and again a modally flavoured melody, giving the piece an attractive sepia tint. 3-against-4 is often called for, and the middle section forgets momentarily that it is supposed to be a dance as it lingers over some rather enjoyable harmonic colours. Gieseking:

Pianists and audiences will find much that is engaging in the Suite Bergamasque beyond its well known star attraction piece. Below is the poem which perhaps inspired it.

Clair de luneVotre âme est un paysage choisi
Que vont charmant masques et bergamasques
Jouant du luth et dansant et quasi
Tristes sous leurs déguisements fantasques.Tout en chantant sur le mode mineur
L’amour vainqueur et la vie opportune,
Ils n’ont pas l’air de croire à leur bonheur
Et leur chanson se mêle au clair de lune,

Au calme clair de lune triste et beau,
Qui fait rêver les oiseaux dans les arbres
Et sangloter d’extase les jets d’eau,
Les grands jets d’eau sveltes parmi les marbres.

From Fêtes galantes (1869)

  MoonlightYour soul is like a landscape fantasy,
Where masks and Bergamasks, in charming wise,
Strum lutes and dance, just a bit sad to be
Hidden beneath their fanciful disguise.Singing in minor mode of life’s largesse
And all-victorious love, they yet seem quite
Reluctant to believe their happiness,
And their song mingles with the pale moonlight,

The calm, pale moonlight, whose sad beauty, beaming,
Sets the birds softly dreaming in the trees,
And makes the marbled fountains, gushing, streaming–
Slender jet-fountains–sob their ecstasies.

Copyright notice: Excerpted from One Hundred and One Poems by Paul Verlaine translated by Norman R. Shapiro, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©1999 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of both the author and the University of Chicago Press

This entry was posted in Composers, Music, Pianists, The French Connection - An A-Z of Debussy's music and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to B is for Bergamasque; C is for Clair de Lune

  1. Ah…what a very beautiful piece Debussy, Clair de lune is.

  2. Pingback: The French Connection – revisited. Favourite piano pieces by Debussy… | notesfromapianist

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