“Clair de Lune” is a beloved musical paragon of Romantic Impressionism composed by Frenchman Claude Debussy at just 25 years old. Debussy was an integral part of the impressionist movement, and “Clair de Lune” is perhaps the most striking example of his work.
Despite its overwhelming popularity, “Clair de Lune” is only a small part of a four-piece suite named Suite Bergamasque, and the title was added last before its 1905 publication (Mccallum, 2017). The beautiful moniker translates to “moonlight” and was chosen in dedication to Paul Verlaine’s 1869 poem of the same name (Shapiro, 2000).
Although only part of a whole, “Clair de Lune” would become Debussy’s most famous work, a signature of sorts from the leader of French Impressionism. The song is his homage to the times, boasting compelling influences of the Baroque period from the 17th and early 18th centuries. It recalls stirrings of the “ancient style” when French culture and character was identified primarily through the arts. This work is part of a new style of impressionism that emerged right here in this song, weaving music into a previously visual art-dominated format that was more popular for paintings and the like.
The song shows a strong departure from the Romantic music that was previously so popular. The strong influence of poetry is apparent, creating a strong musical lilt that is at once romantic and haunting. The piece is known for its tricky shifts and changes, the opening notes of D-flat Major swelling and building to E Major. As the song moves between the keys, listeners are treated to a whole spectrum of emotions, with notes that are at once soft and hopeful, peaceful, and sad. Debussy himself described the piece as “fluid, mellow” (Nichols, 1992).
It certainly makes for a challenging piece to execute but one that artists agree is worthwhile, nonetheless. It is thought-provoking and beautiful, and it treats the listener to a full introspective experience.
“Clair de Lune” was written for the piano in tribute of the beauty of a moonlit night and is largely considered a sensual piece. It is full of the sounds of nature, with notes reminiscent of rain and mist, chirps of birds, wind, and water. The notes mellow, then soar, seamlessly shifting from resigned melancholy to unabashed bursts of joy. The twinkling notes convey hope and optimism before shifting, coming back down to reality in a sudden moody melodrama.
The brilliance of “Clair de Lune” is that it manages a seamless blend of Apollonian and Dionysian influences. While the notes move through the musical spectrum, they take the listener through the emotional spectrum, as well. The whispery pauses and sudden builds command a more cognitive experience than the more common lackadaisical approach to traditional music. The question and surprise that lingers throughout “Clair de Lune” gives cause for reflection and introspection.
Meanwhile, Dionysian influences impact the musical structure of the song: the breaks, pauses, and builds keep the tune while the more Apollonian elements demand contemplation, reflection, and passion. It’s evident that Debussy was deeply inspired by European influences, particularly there within his home country of France. He lived right in the birthplace of Impressionism, so he was deeply influenced by the movement taking place around him.
Impressionism was based upon emotion, not rational thought. The goal was subtlety, with a focus on individual thought and perspective. “Clair de Lune” is far from a structured, defined piece; it’s whimsical, independent, and free. The experience is the listener’s alone to define and create, and the experience changes from person to person.
In that respect, both music and visual art are one of the same. They do not depend on clearly defined parameters, and they do not require the exactness of words. Instead, it’s more of a feeling, a general thought or idea that is pursued on canvas and through melodic notes.
The whole point of art is its spirit – it is meant to communicate on a deeper level than we do in our normal, day-to-day interactions.
“Clair de Lune” stands independent from societal thought, allowing its fans to truly lose themselves in the music, using the work’s versatility to create a meaning that is all their own.
Biography.com Editors. (2019, August 7). Claude Debussy Biography. Retrieved 2019 10, from Biography.com: https://www.biography.com/musician/claude-debussy
Mccallum, S. (2017, 26 July). Decoding the Music Masterpiece: Debussy's Clair de Lune. Retrieved 10 2019, from The Conversation US, Inc.: https://theconversation.com/decoding-the-music-masterpieces-debussys-clair-de-lune-79765
Nichols, R. (1992). Debussy Remembered. Portland: Amadeus Press.
Shapiro, N. (2000). One Hunderd and One Poems by Paul Verlaine: A Biingual Edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Retrieved from Excerpt, One Hundred and One Poems by Paul Verlaine: https://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/853446.html