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CLAUDE DEBUSSY (1862-1918)

Clair de lune

November 12, 2023: Angel Blue, soprano; Bryan Wagorn, piano

Debussy was enchanted by the poetry of Paul Verlaine. Around 1890 he composed Suite bergamasque, a set of piano pieces taking its title from a line of Verlaine’s famous poem Clair de lune. That poem had appeared in a collection of poems entitled Fêtes galantes, which in turn were inspired by the paintings of Watteau and his followers. In these paintings idealized landscapes of parks and gardens in the twilight are often populated by revelers in costumes of the tragic-comic characters of the commedia dell-arte—Harlequin, Pierrot, Colombine, and company.

Originally Debussy had called the present piece “Promenade sentimentale” after another Verlaine poem, but when he polished the Suite bergamasque for publication in 1905 he changed the title to Clair de lune (Moonlight). Since that time the piece has taken on a life of its own, having become extraordinarily popular and, sad to say, trivialized. Its luminous qualities and inspired construction, however, should inspire listeners to look beyond its familiarity. That amazing opening—how it just hangs there then gently descends as silvery light from the moon! The rhythmic freedom gives the feeling of floating as does the delay of the anchoring pitch of the home key. Debussy, like his contemporary Ravel, was justly famous for his water imagery. The rippling central section no doubt responds to the line in Verlaine’s poem describing the moonlight bringing sobs of ecstasy to the fountains. The ending is magical—Debussy fragments the theme as moonlight would be broken up by shadows and allows it to die away in a haunting final cadence.

—©Jane Vial Jaffe

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