Like many classic “lollipops” (such as the “Air on the G string“), Debussy’s Clair de lune (1905, from the Suite bergamesque) is such an ubiquitous media soundbite that I’ve always tended to switch off after the first phrase—like meeting a beautiful person with the word “CLICHÉ” scrawled in lipstick on their forehead. Nor is it helped by the sentimental renditions of glossy superstars. But at long last, overcoming my reluctance, I am properly immersing myself in its magic.
It was inspired by the poem of Paul Verlaine:
Votre âme est un paysage choisi
Que vont charmant masques et bergamasques
Jouant du luth et dansant et quasi
Tristes sous leurs déguisements fantasques.
Tout en chantant sur le mode mineur
L’amour vainqueur et la vie opportune
Ils n’ont pas l’air de croire à leur bonheur
Et leur chanson se mêle au clair de lune.
Au calme clair de lune triste et beau,
Qui fait rêver les oiseaux dans les arbres
Et sangloter d’extase les jets d’eau,
Les grands jets d’eau sveltes parmi les marbres.
Here’s the first of Debussy’s two vocal settings, from 1882:
As to the piano piece (composed with the sonority of his Bechstein upright in mind), we have a precious 1913 piano roll. Debussy did make rolls of his Children’s corner suite (see here); this one too is widely attributed to him on YouTube and elsewhere, but appears to be by Suzanne Godenne (see here, leading us to the detailed scholarship of Roy Howat). Anyway, I love the tempo (Andante!), and the rubato. While the reliability of piano rolls as sources has been much discussed, perhaps this gives an impression of the performance style of the day:
Some may say that Debussy already builds rubato into the notation, subverting the 9/8 metre with tuplets and syncopation, thus making further rhythmic latitude superfluous, even harmful, except in the passage where he actually specifies rubato (from 0.54 in the 1913 recording, bar 15); but I’m all for these more fluid interpretations.
The piece also suits the harp, such as this (very slow!) version:
I wonder if Noor Inayat Khan played it…
It was orchestrated by the splendid André Caplet:
and arranged by Leopold Stokowski for a scene from Fantasia, later deleted:
Here’s David Oistrakh with Frida Bauer in 1962:
For a rendition on the ethereal theremin, see here.
It has inspired jazzers too, such as Kamasi Washington (2015):
On a lighter note, here’s Slim Gaillard, again in 1962:
Clair de lune is the subject of a programme in the BBC series Soul music, with salient comments by Philippe Cassard.