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  • Writer's pictureAyanthi Anandagoda

Claude Debussy, Clair de Lune (Moonlight): unraveling the masterpiece

Updated: May 11, 2021

Your soul is a select landscape

Where charming masqueraders and bergamaskers go

Playing the lute and dancing and almost

Sad beneath their fantastic disguises.

While singing 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.

(Moonlight, Paul Verlaine 1869)

Originally composed in 1890 and not published until 1905, Suite Bergamasque references a rustic Italian dance. The evocative title of its most profound composition was changed from Promenade Sentimentale to Clair de Lune shortly before its publication and does not require any further shedding of moonlight. Treasured for its ethereal beauty and sense of mystery, Debussy's most notable composition is a masterpiece that stirs the senses.

The stillness and meditative calm of the moonlight is evoked with great beauty at the opening of the piece and continues to flow on with vagaries of the breeze wafting gently in with the instruction tempo rubato, as Debussy’s atmospheric sound world continues to fill the air with sounds and resonances. The meditative and melancholic middle section begins with a lean passage and transforms itself to an exaltation by allowing the melodic material take flight, and reaches a turbulent pinnacle as notes begin to crumble at tremendous momentum.

The eventual return to the opening theme marks the third and final section of the composition, which introduces the opening ideas more softly than it did before. Arpeggio fragments continue in the left hand, creating a fluid and changing harmonies while descending into a mystic and haunting state using the coloured notes that are introduced.

The first beat in the Debussy Clair de Lune is a rest, followed by a note deep in the bass and then an alto third. This first measure leads us to expect a beat of two rather than three. This rhythmic ambiguity gives the pianist the freedom to experiment with rubato. Throughout the piece, Debussy avoids any regularity in beat or phrase by alternating triplets and duplets. The result is a sense of floating, a dreamy suspension of momentum. The frequent silences that contain a sense of expectancy and anticipation give the listener time to think and reflect. The rubato and the sense of freedom in playing the piece encourage the listener to feel. The freedom allows each note to be heard individually with frequent diminuendos created naturally by the dimming of the sound. This allows an element of sadness and solitude weave through every note. For the human mind, such states of doubt and confusion are abhorrent. When confronted with them, the mind attempts to resolve them into clarity and certainty. The mysterious beauty grabs the heart strings of the listener bringing the trials of life into the soundscape. explosive contrasts, the colorful rapidity of movements and the peak with all. - Paul Roberts (Concert Pianist, The Piano Music of Claude Debussy)

Debussy is regarded as the painter of sound. Claire DeLune sets a scene and takes you through it.France's other exuberant impressionist composers include Erik Satie, Camile Saint Saens and Gabriel Faure. French impressionist Claude Monet painted using an array of rich colours during the same time that Mr. Debussy was bent over his mysterious piano.

The attached rendition that is reflective, constrained, luminous and thought provoking, all at the same time.

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