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The Moonlight of Debussy's Clair de Lune

Mar 17, 2008
If asked to name a piano piece that is near-perfect, one noted example comes to mind for many people. That piece is Clair de Lune by Claude Debussy. Clair de Lune, the third and most famous movement of Debussy's Suite Bergamasque, has entranced listening ears for over century. It has been the inspiration for many dramatic film sequences, as well as the song "When You Wish Upon a Star" from Disney's Pinocchio.

The son of a china shop owner and a seamstress, Claude Debussy began to reveal his brilliance at the age of seven when he started learning the intricacies of the piano. He soon attracted the attention of Mme. de Fleurville, whose son-in-law, French poet Paul Verlaine, would help inspire the piece with one of his poems. Verlaine was also acquainted with Frederique Chopin, as he was one of Chopin's pupils.

Debussy began his proper musical studies at the illustrious Paris Conservatory at the age of eleven. He spent twelve years studying under the giants of the age, stealing their secrets and arguing against the rigidity of the musical theory of the day. Debussy favored dissonance, which was a thorn in the side of his more strictly harmonious teachers. His love of experimentation, however, proved to be his greatest musical asset.

Early works by Debussy were heavily influenced by both his love of Richard Wagner's operas and his general distaste for the operas of Italian luminaries such as Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi, who was one of the reigning kings of the style. Though Wagner had been dead for several years before Debussy discovered his works, a cult had grown up around his music.

Wagner's influence was not to last, though, as Debussy's pieces tended to be more introverted than the extravagant Wagnerian sounds. He wrote his Suite Bergamasque, containing Clair de Lune, in his late 20s. As a sublime example of Debussy's sensual, quiet style, Clair de Lune may be perhaps his most lasting gift to the music world.

This lustrous piece was inspired, as were his earlier pieces, by one of his friend Verlaine's poems. Verlaine's poem "Clair de Lune" contains a reference to a bergamask, a clumsy dance performed by the natives of Bergamo. The French spelling of bergamask gives the entire suite its memorable name. The name "Clair de Lune," literally translated as "moonlight," is a perfect name, since the piece gives distinct images of moonlight with its rolling notes and glorious harmonies.

Played properly, Clair de Lune requires a technical mastery of sweeping left hand movements and modulations in intensity to reach its timeless quality of melodic and counter-melodic beauty. While the piece is played mostly pianissimo, its brief journeys into louder dynamic ranges present a need for a highly-developed knowledge of the keyboard. This, combined with the ability to re-interpret the feel of the music according to one's own personality, makes Clair de Lune music that has stood the test of time. It is a piece that is constantly evolving, living and breathing in the fingers of pianists the world over.
About the Author
Duane Shinn is the author of over 300 DVD home study courses on playing piano, all available at
"Piano Playing For Busy Adults"
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