What is the allure of Claude Debussey’s Clair de Lune? Coffee shops and vacation rentals bear the name, as do perfumes and patterns, photography studios and cruise ships. It’s featured on TV shows and movies as that quintessential love song.
Is it the composition or the namesake, which evokes such romanticism? Clair de Lune. The light of the moon, where there is magic, where there is absolution, where all things are possible.
When I started to research the song, I realized my perceptions were superficial. Shedding Veil No. 1: that iconic piece of music we know of as Clair de Lune is just one movement in a four-part suite, called the Bergamasque.
Of Bergamo. The Bergamasque is a kind of dance, purported to have originated in the Northern Italian town of Bergamo. Masked. Clumsy and anachronistic. It’s the dance of fools.
How strange, then, that Claude Debussey would chose to gather his Prelude, Menuet, Clair de Lune, and Passepied under this moniker. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that the Suite was composed over 15 years, from 1890 to 1905.
It’s true, each of the movements has its own character. The Prelude is like sifting through a memory, dipping in and out of it, moving from the reality of what is to what has passed, from what has been captured, to what has been lost. It is something like stolen time. It is like meeting a person, and he home’s in on you, and says “Let me tell you about this story. There’s this story. I’m so fond of it and it’s gripped me. It’ll grip you, too. Just follow the cherry blossoms to the river.” It alternates between being wistful and being present and regretting.
Then the Menuet prances in, dancing mischief. It drunkenly rolls around on a unicycle, tipping its hat to children and snapping dogs. Then it catches the scent of something real. It forgets its aimlessness, and for moment has sharp-edged purpose. But just as soon, it’s stopping to pick flowers, looking like Charlie Chaplin in a hiccupy black and white. Lovestruck, hopeful, buoyant, longing, poignant, and then flirting again with the comforting disguise of the inane buffoon.
Clair de Lune follows this. The light of the moon is delicate, tracing over everything in its kind glow. Nostalgic and slow. And then we are confronted with that refrain. Soaring, and twirling in circles. We see, and are seen. We move through trepidation and shock, we are startled with what is before us. And then we are transformed. Wistful weaves around the chords. It turns into a mature appreciation, which slowly evaporates in those same twirling circles, leaving sweetness and a touch of melancholy.
Finally comes the Passepied. This is a hot murmur. A rumor traveling, lip to ear to lip to ear. It takes root and shakes some; and others shake it off, passing it along for the sake of propagating a notion of truth. It is also twins, strutting long-legged ballet strides through the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. Chase and discovery. A resolution of sorts. The instructions for playing this piece are along the lines of left hand staccato, and a flowing right hand. It is one of the most difficult pieces of Debussey’s to play.
Veil No. 2 is shed. Passepied is a dance of the french court. And so is the Menuet. And the Bergamasque is a masked dance. With the Passepied in particular, people with more musicality and knowledge than I have observed this movement is Baroque music cloaked in, or infused with medieval influences. Perhaps Claude Debussey was doing what painfully intelligent people do. Dismantle various traditions, examine each of their parts with clinical interest, and reassemble them into an intellectual response, which is both criticism and acknowledgement.
And then there is the poem. (Veil No. 3 trickles to the floor)
The entire Suite was inspired by Paul Verlaine’s Poem entitled “Clair de Lune”. Debussey was not the first to compose music around these three verses. Gabriel Urbain Fauré even included the poem as lyrics in his homage.
There is something about Debussey’s version, which can’t be denied. It is a masterpiece. But my intrigue with the mystique of Clair de Lune evolved after understanding it was based on a poem, which captivated a number of contemporaries as well as future artists.
So, here it is. The English translation of Clair de Lune by Verlaine:
Your soul is a chosen landscape
Where charming masqueraders and bergamasquers go
Playing the lute and dancing and almost
Sad beneath their fantastic disguises.
They all sing in a minor key
About triumphant love and fortunate life,
They do not seem to believe in their fortune
And their song blends with the light of the moon,
In the calm moonlight, sad and beautiful,
Which has the birds dreaming in the trees
And the fountains sobbing in ecstasy,
The tall fountains, slender amid marble statues.