JUly COMPOSER: claude debussy
suite bergamasque 1905
I set out to research the popular Clair de lune only to discover that like Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, it was actually one of four movements of a larger piece of music. I understand how one movement might resonate more than others, but to me at least I feel like that’s like choosing only to read the middle of a book, or watch only the end of a movie. You’re missing the whole story that the composer was telling. The wonderful thing I’ve discovered so far on this journey into the classical world is that all of these pieces I’m uncovering are stories waiting to be discovered.
The 17 minute Suite Bergamasque is made up of four movements: Prélude — a jaunty, twinkling contrasting movement, Menuet — a short playful hopscotch-like dance, Clair de Lune – a slower contemplative piece reminiscent of summer raindrops, and Passepied another dance and a somewhat familiar one at that — I can imagine aristocratic ladies at a ball dancing to this final movement. Overall the piece is cohesive and optimistic, as if the waves and troughs of climax and despair have been evened out somewhat.
Coming back briefly to the most famous movement, it is easy to see the appeal of Claire de lune by itself, it is contemplative without being sombre, the contrasts are not abrupt or disconcerting (less surprising even). It’s like sinking into a warm bath.
Watch Clair de lune by by Dame Moura Lympany
The image of aristocratic ladies at a dance or a ball in a bygone era stays with me the more I listened to this piece as a whole. Ladies who are all outwards respectability and politeness. Conforming to societal and family expectations of performance, of submission so that even their inner thoughts are monitored by themselves. They twirl around and dance this ball in an aesthetic delight of smiles and painted on beauty. If you looked from above they would make patterns like a kaleidoscope on the ballroom floor. Occasionally they might get cross, but the anger is repressed held back. The mood shifts and the dance slows, sorrow flickers on their faces but never descends into depression, into tragedy, instead it is buffered into a smile and a flick of the feet on the dance floor. Love, lust and animal instinct reigned in and restrained by increasing the speed of the dance, so that it is almost a folk dance, the women join arms with each other and become one giant whirling wheel of woman.
Watch the whole of Suite Bergamasque played by Bruno Canino
It’s said Debussy flunked out of the Paris Conservatory for his inappropriate continued use of unusual harmonies, and his favouring of dissonances and odd intervals. But he ushered in 20th Century music with his use of the whole tone scale (think that harp sound that marks a trance or a flashback in TV) and produced lush and magical music You can hear his influence in the works of famous screen composer John Williams (Star Wars, ET etc) and so Debussy becomes familiar to all of us through contemporary life. It’s not so surprising that these ideas carried into film scores, Debussy created in a time of Impressionism, where art was about impressions of the senses, sights, sounds, smells and tastes. He also spent many years writing operas, and so we get the stories entwined with the senses. And somehow he managed to make something we only use one sense to hear about a scene that we see and feel but he did it extremely well.
* images in order of appearance courtesy of Public Domain, Louis Haghe via Public Domain, pixababy via Public Domain