Although Debussy wrote music for various instruments as well as for a full orchestra, he is best known for his piano music. This music was unlike almost anything else being written at the time, and it remains popular among classical music aficionados for its flowing, dreamlike quality. The elements for which Debussy was often criticized during his life such as a lack of fully-realized ideas, dissonant chords and occasionally a near total lack of structure give listeners the feeling that they are not just listening to a piece of music but to a soundscape. Debussy shied away from the tradition of harmonic tonality that was considered one of the fundamentals of Western music during his lifetime and instead created a melodic tonality with harmonies. Some of the ways in which Debussy achieved this in his piano music was the use of the whole-tone pentatonic scale influenced by the gamelan music, bitonal chords as opposed to tritonal chords, and dissonant chords. Dissonance was considered unpleasant and was to be avoided just as it is in many music circles today, but Debussy successfully embraced it in his attempts to create musical effects that bring to mind a visual scene as opposed to traditional music.
Clair de lune
Clair de lune is perhaps the most famous of Claude Debussy’s piano works. It is the third movement of the Suite bergamasque, which is itself one of the most well-known of Debussy’s works for solo piano. Debussy first began work on the four-movement Suite bergamasque in 1890 at the age of 28, but he did not complete and publish the work until 1905. The work’s four movements are entitled Prélude, Menuet, Clair de lune, and Passepied. While the suite itself follows a traditional structure of a grand and festive first movement, a spirited second movement, a quiet and more introspective third movement and a lively dance piece for the fourth movement, the individual movements did not sound traditional. The Prélude mostly adheres to Baroque conventions, but the Menuet is a more lively and comedic piece than most traditional preludes. The fourth movement is the same lively dance music that was often used to end suites such as these, although it has an almost medieval sound and is meant to be played considerably faster than its more traditional counterparts.
Of each of the four movements of the Suite bergamasque, it is Clair de lune that truly stands out. It is the lyrical climax of the entire work despite the fact that it’s only the third movement, and it is truly a hauntingly beautiful work. The name of the piece is derived from the poem of the same name by French poet Paul Verlaine. Interestingly enough, the piece was originally going to be called Promenade Sentimentale, which was also taken from Verlaine’s poetry.
The most fascinating aspect of Clair de lune is the way in which the piece builds from being dreamlike and almost formless to something a bit more solid and almost tangible. The movement starts similarly to the rest of the suite with a motif that is similar to those which appear in the previous two movements. This motif (F – E? – F – E? – D?) appears in the first two bars of the piece, thereby establishing it as a part of the suite as a whole. The fascinating thing about this melody is that it is played off the downbeats of each measure up until measure eight. This slow, syncopated rhythm in which the motif is played makes it compelling to be sure, but it also makes it difficult for the listener to grasp. It’s almost as if we hear a hint of a melody as opposed to the fully-formed melody itself. This gives the first several bars of the movement a flowing, dreamlike quality for which Debussy’s work has become so well known. The rhythmic ambiguity of the piece continues throughout the first fifteen measures, although the rhythm does get stronger here. As the rhythm becomes stronger and the phrases become clearer and easier to comprehend, we finally hear the strong yet hauntingly beautiful melody that casual listeners and classical music aficionados alike will most likely recognize. By this time, the listener has been drawn into the music; its dreamlike quality and flowing yet oddly triumphant melody has us hooked.
Once we have an established melody roughly halfway through the five-minute piece along with a clearer rhythm, things start to wind down again. We hear the opening motif played again with its syncopated rhythm. By this time the piece is clearly coming to an end, and the listener knows it. The familiar melody repeats one more time, albeit at a much slower tempo and more ambiguous rhythm as the piece slowly comes to an end.
It is interesting to note that while the ambiguous rhythm of Claire de lune and its flowing, dreamlike quality would suggest that it can be played freely with some improvisation, Debussy never intended it to be played this way. He composed his music in a way that was thoroughly thought out and meticulous. Despite the flowing quality of his most famous work, there is a very specific way in which it is intended to be played.
Critics and scholars are rather torn over whether the music of Claude Debussy can and should be called impressionist. Debussy certainly hated the term when it was applied to his own music, but it cannot be denied that his work was very influential and a major part of that movement whether he would admit it or not. Claude Debussy’s music may not have always been appreciated by his contemporaries, but his haunting melodies and commitment to doing things with his music that were unique and interesting has earned him and his music admiration that continues to this day.