Debussy’s clairvoyant Claire de Lune is a profound mystery for me. Its music is elegant, graceful and lyrical but yet it found its way into Claude Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque. So what’s so unusual about that? A suite is usually a collection of dances, sometimes with a prelude The Suite Bergamasque has four numbers: (1) the Prelude (2) Menuet (3) Claire de Lune (4) Passepied. Three of the four numbers belong in a dance suite: the prelude, menuet and passpied. Claire de Lune is program or descriptive music about the Moon: no dancing. So why is it there? One answer is that both the words bergamask and moonlight are found in the poem, Clare de Lune by Paul Verlaine, given below:
Claire de Lune, poem by Paul Verlaine
Your soul is a chosen landscape
Where charming masqueraders and bergamaskers go
Playing the lute and dancing and almost
Sad beneath their fanciful disguises.
All sing in a minor key
Of victorious love and the opportune life,
They do not seem to believe in their happiness
And their song mingles with the moonlight,
With the still moonlight, sad and beautiful,
That sets the birds dreaming in the trees
And the fountains sobbing in ecstasy,
The tall slender fountains among marble statues.
I have chosen a second answer. I believe that either Debussy or his editor knew, either by intuition or clairvoyance, that Claire de Lune would be a great and lasting classical hit. They placed it in the suite as a third number. The parallel position in today’s Broadway musical show would be called the 11 o’clock number. The hit ballad is saved for this place. Claire de Lune shines like moonlight on the other three numbers and elevates the level entire suite in the same manner that a hit ballad elevates a musical. I do not wish to negate the value of the other three numbers. A hit number can carry a show, suite, symphony or make anything into a success.
Clair de lune”, (“Moonlight”) Op. 46 No 2, is a song by Gabriel Fauré, composed in 1887 to words by Paul Verlaine. What most people do not know is that Gabriel Fauré, wrote his Claire de Lune three years before Debussy began his, which is in his Suite Bergamasque. What most also do not know is that Faure taught Debussy composition. Also Debussy wrote his Claire de Lune in five flats just like Faure’s. Faure’s is in Bb minor while Debussy’s is in the major mode. Did Debussy choose to follow the path of his instructor and perhaps even try to out do him? Please listen to both Clair de Lunes. See if you agree with me that the poem is much closer to Gabriel Faure’s musical sentiment than it is to Debussy’s. I feel that Debussy’s is positively romantic while Faure’s fits the line: Sad beneath their fanciful disguises. Feel free to email the site with your answer as to who you prefer.