Claude Debussy

Clair de Lune

Explained using the 5-4-3-2-1 Method

Duration: About 6 Minutes
Genre: Third Movement of a Piano Suite
Time of Creation: 1890
World Premiere: Unknown (First Publication 1905)

Table of Contents

Debussy's Clair de Lune in 5 Sentences

Clair de Lune (“moonlight” or “moonshine”) is the third movement of the Suite bergamasque, a piano suite in four movements by French composer Claude Debussy. It is one of Debussy’s best-known pieces, and the title says it all: Debussy creates a mood that fits well with the associations of “night” and “moonlight,” which in turn is typical of musical impressionism and symbolism. The poem “Clair de Lune” by French lyricist Paul Verlaine probably acted as inspiration for Debussy’s Clair de Lune (but also for the entire suite). Debussy’s composition has been used in an incredible number of other contexts, such as film and even video game music.

Note: This work belongs to the Classical Music Top 100.

4 Highlights from Debussy's Clair de Lune

Highlight 1: Floating Beginning

Notice how Debussy creates the impression of something “floating” at the beginning: in the first bars of the piece, there are no low sounds, no bass. Everything happens in the high register. Only very gradually does the music “wander” downward:

Highlight 2: Middle section – growing to the climax

The now following middle section forms a counterweight to the beginning. After the piano sounds have gradually wandered downwards in the first part, they now spiral further and further upwards to finally reach a climax:

Highlight 3: Return of the beginning

Debussy then picks up the first part again (in an even higher register)….

Highlight 4: Reminiscences of the middle part

…to finally bring the piece to a close with excerpts we already know from the middle section:

3 Questions and Answers about Debussy's Clair de Lune

Question 1: Is Clair de Lune difficult to play?

Clair de Lune is like many of Debussy’s piano pieces: from a purely motoric point of view, the piece is not particularly difficult to master. But: To keep the piano sound beautifully transparent, to always balance the individual sounds well – THAT is difficult. At the same time, this is exactly what is necessary for Clair de Lune to work well.

Question 2: When was Clair de Lune written?

Debussy composed the Suite bergamasque (of which “Clair de Lune” is the third movement) in 1890, however the work was not published until 15 years later. The poem “Clair de Lune” by Paul Verlaine, which probably inspired Debussy to compose it, dates from 1869.

Question 3: What does Bergamasque mean?

“Bergamasque” is a place name that refers to the Italian city of Bergamo. Debussy’s “Suite bergamasque” is therefore a “suite from Bergamo.” In Paul Verlaine’s poem, however, the term is part of a pun (“masks and Bergamasques”).

2 Recommended Recordings of Debussy's Clair de Lune

Recording 1: Lang Lang (video production, 2019)

Chinese pianist Lang Lang plays Clair de Lune here in a beautiful video production by Deutsche Grammophon. What could be better than a nocturnal tour of Paris, plus Clair de Lune in Lang Lang’s particularly gentle interpretation? Exactly. It’s a pity that the piece is so short 😊

Recording 2: Khatia Buniatishvili (live, 2018)

A recommended live version is the recording of Khatia Buniatishvili’s interpretation at the 2018 BBC Proms:

1 Quote about Debussy's Clair de Lune

Votre âme est un paysage choisi
Que vont charmant masques et bergamasques
Jouant du luth et dansant et quasi
Tristes sous leurs déguisements fantasques.

Your soul is a chosen landscape
On which masks and Bergamasques cast enchantment as they go,
Playing the lute, and dancing, and all but
Sad beneath their fantasy-disguises.

The beginning of the poem “Clair de Lune” by Paul Verlaine

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Joe Tursi

    It’s interesting to compare Evgenyh Kissin’s and DanielBarenboim’s
    ‘playing, so different in tempo. Lang Lang is lovely.

    1. Jonathan Stark

      Yes, I think so, too! Comparing several interpretations is always a lot of fun.

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