An Analysis of Clair De Lune from Suite Bergamasque
Claude Debussy (1862-1918) composed Clair de Lune, the third movement from the Suite Bergamasque in 1888 (first published in 1903). It is important to note that with the exception of the poetically titled Clair de Lune, suite Bergamasque is created exclusively from Baroque movements. The choice of compound triple meter for this movement shows the contrast to the dance movements and helps allow Debussy freedom to articulate the music differently.
In addition, Clair de Lune is compositionally, the most adventurous piece of the suite. The positioning within the suite is important; it is the suite’s third movement, and is the lyrical climax of the suite. The use of structure and proportion within the movement is significant;
Most important of all, they show ways in which the forms are used to project the music’s dramatic and expressive qualities with maximum precision. (Howat, R. Page 1)
The opening theme of Clair De Lune is derived from music heard in the preceding movements of the suite. This is worth mentioning, as while Debussy has composed a movement that may itself warrant detailed analysis, it is important to remember that care has been taken with both compositional material and structure on a macroscopic level.
Thematic Fragment as it appears in the Prélude:
Thematic Fragment as it appears in the Menuet:
Theme 1’s constituents;
Theme 1 is created from various constituents. The upper turns shown in pink on the above diagram originate from the thematic fragments used between movements. The first half of the theme (blue) is voiced in thirds, but the latter half is not. The second half of the theme is sequential, shown by the yellow.
The second theme of the movement is constructed from the rhythmic cell shown below. This rhythm is used in the right hand to form melodies; such as the second theme in bar 27-36, or in the transitional section in bar 39-40. The accompaniment also shows this rhythm in bar 29; in the arpeggio; the return to the previously arpeggiated note occurs on this rhythm.
Accompaniment picking up rhythmic cell
While the overall structure of the movement is ambiguous, I think the form best fitting the movement is ternary form, extended by a coda created from material originating in section B. On a superficial level, the overall structure of ternary form; A B A, fits the structure of the movement well. In ternary form, the first and third sections (A) are normally identical, although commonly, the third section will feature more ornamentation than the first section; while the middle section (B) contrasts sharply with it. The thematic material in the A and B sections would sharply contrast; which they do here. An alternative to ternary form could be rounded binary form, again with an added coda. While the general structure ABa fits the music, the form is less likely to be rounded binary because two main themes are used, therefore the music is not monothematic, nor are the sections harmonically open. The movement remains mostly in the tonic, the only modulation occurring in bars 37-42, which means the sections are harmonically closed.
The length of sections sequentially decreases by two bars as shown bellow.
Proportion of Sections
It is worth mentioning that Paul Verlaine’s poem Claire de Lune, which is probably the inspiration for this movement – both the titles Bergamasque and Claire de Lune originate in this poem; is in three stanzas, mirroring Debussy’s use of three sections in this movement.
The composition opens in Db major with a tonic chord. Here Debussy has already broken two rules of conventional voice leading; Debussy begins without the tonic note, introducing it later, where the mediant of the chord (F natural) is doubled. This gesture could also be interpreted as opening with chord iii (still with doubled mediant) moving to chord I on the third beat of the bar; however I think this is less likely to be Debussy’s intention because of the use of a Db chord in bar 9 when the phrase is imitated. The choice of chord I is also supported by the left hand for the opening four bars, which implies a chord-a-bar harmonic rhythm. Throughout the opening phrase the left hand part begins to slowly descend, while the diatonic opening theme floats above in the right hand. In Bar 2 Gb and A; an augmented second, show Debussy’s confident use of unconventional intervals. Bars 5-6 are used sequentially in bar 7-8, the last beat altered to lead into the repeat of the theme in bar 9 with a traditional perfect cadence. The opening 8 bars are repeated in bars 9; with some decoration, harmonic substitutions and other changes. The opening F Ab idea re-enters with an ascending octave gesture. The harmonic substitutions can be seen in bar 10; the Gb o7 is changed for a Gb 6 chord.
Bar 15 could be interpreted both as the finishing of the previous phrase, making it 8 bars long, or as the start of the next block in material; the change in texture is significant, we now have a homophonic texture. The right hand chords in this section should be seen as a melody, the harmony is in the bass part of the left hand. The harmonic rhythm at this point has slowed. The dynamics at this point is still pianissimo. An ascending left hand figure is introduced in the bar 19. This texture continues until bar 26. The harmony, while compositionally inventive, is still heavily rooted on conventional diatonic harmony; there has been occasional chromatism but the music feels diatonic. While the music feels distinctly diatonic, it does not feel rooted in the tonic key of Db major, the key itself remains ambiguous until the final cadence in bar 72, as use of non functional harmony also occasionally implies the relative minor of Bb minor.
In bar 27 we begin the B section; new thematic material is introduced, as is a change in accompaniment; we now have an arpeggio figure in the left hand. The music at this point is in two bar phrases. The first two bar phrase uses the rhythmic cell shown earlier to create a melodic phrase. Below this, the bass ascends a third each beat. The chord used on the third beat of bar 27, bIIIb is an unusual harmonic choice within conventional tonality and shows Debussy experimenting with non-functional harmony; this creates a new and interesting sound world, made more obvious by the preceding chord III(a). The harmony at this point is therefore; I III bIIIb. The harmonic rhythm slows at bar 29, with a sustained I chord moving to II in bar 30. In bar 31-32 we have an imitation of bar 27-28, the rhythm and general contour of the right hand melody is the same. Under this, we have more unusual harmony, the harmonic rhythm has returned to the dotted crotchet pulse and what appears to be an A9 chord with a doubled seventh, followed by the progression IV iii and is repeated again in the following bar.
At this point we have now subtly changed dynamic to piano from pianissimo; while we have seen crescendos and diminuendos written into the score, along with hairpins in bars 13, 14, and 29 this is the first marked change in dynamic. Bar 35-36 is a repeat of bar 27-28 an octave higher. The last dotted crotchet of bar 36 is written enharmonically to prepare for the modulation at bar 37. The piece has now moved into E major, the first modulation to occur in the piece. In addition to the modulation, the texture also changes. The overall tessitura shifts suddenly upwards at this point. The rhythm in voice 1 of the left hand is based upon the end of the rhythmic cell shown earlier. The music continues to ascend throughout this bar, the music rises by a third each beat. Debussy is building tension with a full arsenal of devices to prepare for the climax of the piece. Beginning in bar 38 we hear a prominent descending chromatic scale in the bass until bar 39 beat 2. We also see the rhythmic cell used in full again. We see a prominent forte at bar 41, from a dynamics perspective this is the climax of the piece. The right hand begins a descending scale in thirds throughout bars 41-42. We resume Db major at bar 43. To smooth the modulation back to the tonic key, a dominant chord is sustained in the left hand from bars 43-46, over a melody based on the rhythmic phrase seen in bar 37. Harmonic interest is created in bar 45-46 when chords are played in the right hand over the dominant Ab pedal. Bar 47 reintroduces the rhythmic cell in the right, while a figure derived from it is played in the left hand. Between these parts, the harmony is arpeggiated and sustained notes in the middle register of the piano can be heard. In bar 50-51 the B section ends with an ambiguous chord, a sustained #V7 sus4d, the dominant feeling of the chord helps expose the tonic key and the section is harmonically closed.
At bar 51 the music returns to the opening theme and the start of the final section. The bar begins with an ascending iii chord leading into the opening theme, which leaves the dissonant dominant of the previous bar technically unresolved, although because of Debussy’s treatment of the materials the tension feels to have been resolved. The dynamic is marked PPP, which is the quietest dynamic in the piece. The theme has undergone alterations since its introduction. The duration of the F and Ab have been shortened, and the final beat of the bar has been changed to an octave F. The tonal ambiguity of the music is also highlighted with the lack of a Db in the opening bar; implying the chord is now an F minor, rather than a tonic with a doubled mediant. The subtle harmonic tension of bar 2 is removed in bar 52, and the music appears far more triadic than before. While in bar 2 a V7 is used, decorated with a suspension and a upper turn, bar 52 uses a III7 chord, while the music is clearly recognizable as the opening theme, the music has been re-imagined with harmonic substitutions, and new figures for the left hand material. From bar 51-53 a dominant pedal figure is repeated in the bass; which by bar 53 has become a traditionally dissonant 7th of the vi7d chord, this resolves downward to Gb in bar 54, the mediant of the V7c chord. This section finishes at bar 65.
The coda now begins in bar 66, the arpeggio figure seen alludes to section B; the first two beats of the bar are taken from the accompaniment in bar 27. The melody in beats 2-3 of bar 67 is rhythmically simple and is different from the rhythms of preceding themes, but the contour of the melody is the same as the opening of theme 2, seen on the final beat of bar 27. The flowing arpeggio is interrupted in bar 67 by a pause on the ic chord. A chord of Bb minor is written in bar 71, which is an example of the insecurity of the key, before the tonal ambiguity of the piece is finally removed with the final chord of Db major chord in 72.
Debussy, C. (1978) Suite Bergamasque. London: Peters
Howat, R. (1986) Debussy in Proportion. Cambridge: University Press
Long, M. (1960) At the piano with Debussy. London: J.M. Dent & Sons
Nichols, R. (1972) Debussy. Oxford: University Press
Schmitz, E. (1950) The Piano Works of Claude Debussy. New York: Sloan & Pearce
Filed under Essays, MusicTagged with analysis, bergamansque, clair, claire, de lune, Debussy, Music, suit, suite
Probably one of the most well-known piano songs of all time is Debussy’sClair de Lune. But it’s also very difficult. So as per a request on this channel, I decided that it would be fun to do a discussion on the tune. In today’s episode, we’ll talk about the history of the piece, its interpretation, sound and style, and then listen to some audio clips and dissect it a little.
My intention for this video isn’t to do a heavy, academic analysis of Clair de Lune – if that’s what you’re looking for, you’ll definitely be disappointed. As per the title, “For Casual Music Fans”, I wanted to create a video that even non-nerdy music listeners could understand.
That said, it’s a fine line between getting super nerdy, and watering down the content too much, so I’m trying to strike a balance. And if there’s anything you’d like to add, feel free to leave a comment and share your thoughts – it’s great for me to read, but also great for other people who watch these videos as well.
Clair de Lune: Suite Bergamasque
Clair de Lune isn’t actually even a standalone piece. It’s part of a larger whole – a suite called “Suite bergamasque”. The suite was published in 1905 by the French composer Claude Debussy. This means it was written in the 20th Century era of music, also referred to as the modern era (100 years ago might not seem modern, but it is compared to music from 1000 years ago).
Clair de Lune is the third movement of the four-movement suite. The title is French for “Moonlight”, and is based off a poem by Paul Verlaine. A lot of composers took inspiration from poetry, and Debussy was no exception. It’s actually a super awesome poem – even the translation – so I’ll link it below if you want to check it out.
Verlaine’s poem: Moonlight
Let’s take a really quick listen to the intro of Clair de Lune, in case you haven’t heard it or need a refresher on what it sounds like.
Analysis of Clair de Lune and Suite Bergamasque
It’s interesting because we have this perception of Clair de Lune being this ridiculously beautiful song – which it is – but in the context of the entire Suite Bergamasque, it really stands out.
What is a Bergamask?
See, a Bergamask is basically a clumsy, clownish dance – like the kind of exaggerated dance you’d do if you were joking around. So it’s interesting that such a tender, lovely piece like Clair de Lune would be part of a collection of tunes about clumsy dancing.
But if you especially take a listen to the minuet (the second movement), you can definitely hear a bit of goofiness coming through.
Additionally, it isn’t entirely random that Debussy threw in this tender piece in the middle of a rather oddball assortment of tunes. In the poem “Clair de Lune”, bergamasks are referenced in the second line, which loosely ties things together.
Debussy’s Songwriting Style
Whether you’re learning this song or just appreciating it, it’s important to know where Debussy was coming from as a songwriter. He was opposed to the Romantic style of playing with chord patterns and themes.
Instead, he said,
“I should like to see the creation…of a kind of music free from themes or motives…which nothing interrupts and which never returns upon itself. There will not be, between two restatements of the same characteristic theme, a hasty and superfluous ‘filling in’.”
Basically his intent wasn’t to write a catchy tune, but rather an experience, a song that sets a scene and takes you through it.
Analysis of Clair de Lune
So now we’re going to look at the different parts, and do an analysis of Clair de Lune. Though it doesn’t have a formal structure, can be loosely divided into three different sections – a type of ternary form, or three part form.
You already heard the introduction at the beginning of this video – it’s very sparse and lacks any distinctive rhythm.
Claude Debussy has a quote that goes something like, “Music is the space between the notes,” and you can really feel his meaning by the intro alone. There’s a lot of open, empty space in the first part, which is just as captivating as if there were lots of fast, rapid notes like in the second section.
One of my favorite parts of the piece, and one of the most recognizable parts, is on the second page when all the notes come together, still very quietly, but the effect is powerful.
Without going too far with musical jargon, the tonality never feels truly secure in this piece. Tonality is when you say, “This song is in the key of C major, or D flat major,” or whatever it is. Certain chords strengthen and emphasize the tonality of a piece (like use of the tonic and dominant chords).
But what Debussy does here is creates tonal ambiguity – you never really feel secure in the key, which is D flat major. He does this in a number of ways, but one way, which you can see right from the opening notes, is that though he’s hinting at a tonic D flat major chord, there’s actually no Db note played anywhere, at least not until later on. There also aren’t any dominant chords (Ab major in this case) to strengthen the tone.
First Section: Dissonant Chords and Agitation
The music grows in agitation, featuring some of Debussy’s characteristic rule-breaking when it comes to chords. He didn’t choose clusters of notes to adhere to any standard – I presume he chose them for the specific mood they created, even if – and maybe even especially if – they were dissonant.
We’ll take a listen to those dissonant, chordal parts as they peak into beautiful rolled high notes that always remind me of a harp, and that lead us to the second section.
Analysis of Clair de Lune, Second Section
Part two is when things really start rolling along in this song. It’s much more technically demanding than the first part, but just because the first part is physically simpler, it’s got so much subtlety that it’s still about as challenging as this second, faster part.
Let’s take a quick listen to the rolling arpeggios and simple right hand melody.
Debussy and Impressionism
When listening to Debussy, it helps to keep Impressionist paintings in mind. Debussy’s style was in the same vein, only on piano instead of on a canvas. Clair de Lune, like an impressionist painting, is really all about capturing the essence of something – not so much the details but the spirit.
So Clair de Lune is decidedly un-catchy, lacks a really distinctive rhythm, and breaks all kinds of harmonic “rules” that musicians had been following for hundreds of years. But it paints a picture, it creates a mood, and takes us somewhere beautiful. Not in an intellectual “that’s a good song” kind of way, but in a way that tugs at the spirit.
The Climactic Moment (It’s Undramatic)
All of the second section involves running arpeggios and plenty of motion. Take a listen to the climactic moment of the piece – there isn’t a grand crescendo or even much build, as this tune defies those kinds of stereotypical song structures – but the moment when all the notes start tumbling downward like a waterfall is definitely a pinnacle of sorts.
The Third Section: Return to the Beginning
Part 3 sees a return to the opening theme, but it’s not an exact replica. Arpeggio fragments continue in the left hand, creating a fluid and changing harmony.
An interesting change from the beginning is that, though the beginning implied a Db major chord, and a “happier” sound because of it, the third part, echoing the first part, takes it in a minor, “sadder” direction, implying an F minor harmony. It’s still peaceful like the beginning, but maybe a little more mysterious and melancholic.
At Last, a Perfect Cadence
Finally, in the ending arpeggios that echo part two, we get that perfect cadence, the dominant-to-tonic harmony that Debussy used extremely sparingly in the entire piece. Finally, at the end of the song, we get a sense of peace by hearing that cadence. It gives us our tonal footing, and makes the final notes feel well-earned and satisfying.
Full Version of Clair de Lune
And since we’ve just spent this blog post/video dissecting Clair de Lune in little parts, here’s a video of the piece in its entirety. It’s one of my favorite versions, performed by Angela Hewitt. Enjoy!
Thanks for stopping by for this analysis of Clair de Lune! It was a lot of fun to do – let me know if you’re into this kind of video and I’ll maybe do some more like it in the future.