Debussy: Clair de Lune

Claude Debussy was born in St. Germain-en-Laye, France, on 22nd August 1862, the son of china shop owners. Having shown early musical talent, he entered the Paris Conservatoire at the age of ten, studying under, amongst others, Cesar Franck. Although, following visits to Bayreuth in the late 1880’s, the music of Wagner was to have a deep and lasting influence on Debussy’s music, there is little evidence of Wagnerian grand scale in the Suite Bergamasque for piano which Debussy wrote around 1890.

Suite Bergamasque is in four movements, the third and most famous of which is Clair de Lune. It is probable that the suite takes its name from a poem by Paul Verlaine called Clair de Lune in which reference is made to a bergamask, a rustic dance associated with Bergamo in Italy. However, there is nothing rustic about the beautiful movement Clair de Lune. The atmosphere is static and impressionistic, Debussy achieving this through the simplest of harmonic means. The piece hardly moves from the home key of D-flat major, the impact of the movement’s only significant climax being thus emphasised by the sudden modulation to the distant key of E major.

The music of Clair de Lune has been used extensively in films in both the version for piano and in orchestral arrangements. These films include Giant (1956), Casino Royale (1967) and Ocean’s Eleven (2001). Although it was to be used to depict the movement of swans in the 1940 Walt Disney film Fantasia, the section in question was cut. However, the sequence was restored for the 2000 Fantasia DVD.