What comes into mind when you hear the name “Clair de Lune”? Some might think about the French composer Claude Debussy, who composed Clair de Lune (which is actually the third movement of a four-part musical suite called La Suite Bergamesque) in 1890, while others might think about the film Twilight and the intense love shared between Bella and Edward. Certain people might have the movie Black Swan into mind, the story about a ballerina obsessed with perfection. Whatever pops into your imagination, this piece is well-loved and the one of the most known works for solo piano.
The question is, why is this piece loved? What is in this piece that stirs up certain emotions? The answer lies in its harmony, and the harmony is inspired from the impressionist era. What is the impressionist era?
To start, Claude Debussy’s Clair de Lune was inspired by the French poet Paul Verlaines, who made a poem of the same name, “Clair de Lune”, which belongs to his collection of poems, “Fetes Galantes”, dating from the year 1869:
PAUL VERLAINE, “Claire de Lune”
Your soul is a landscape fair and fine
Where charming masqueraders swarm
Playing the lute and dancing and being almost
Sad beneath their fanciful costume.
Singing together in a minor key
Of love conquests and the life of risks,
In their fortune they do not seem to believe;
And their song melts into the lunar beam.
The quiet moon beam, sad and beautiful,
That lulls the birds in the trees to dream
And makes the fountain jets sob in a spree,
The tall slender jets that soothe the marbles.
This is indeed a very beautiful and dreamy poem, but what does it actually play with? We notice that in this poem, it evokes certain things: The beams of the moon, the landscape, and color. This is basically what the impressionist era was all about: Whether it was through a painting or through a novel, the impressionist era always evoked light, color, dreams, and the countryside. In Gustave Flaubert’s book “Education Sentimentale”, the reader is taken into the world of a bright student named Frederic, who is in love with the young Madame Arnoux. In the novel, the brilliant but subtle use of color and light is used in scene Frederic, enfatuated by Madame Arnoux’s elegant look and beauty, begins to ‘analyse’ Madame Arnoux like an impressionist painter by changing position while the lighting of the scene shifts and the color changing with each movement.
Now take a look at this painting by the French painter Monet:
This painting plays with color, light, and the landscape, as the light changes direction and the color varies with each flower. Compared to the other eras we know about (let’s say the Renaissance Period, where art was used to represent man, or even the Modern Era, with the birth of realism and surrealism), impressionist art interpreted the environment and the surroundings.
Now you might be thinking, “So how is impressionism portrayed in music? Music can’t give off colors!” You don’t need the sense of synthesia to hear nor see impressionism, but this is where it gets complicated. In music, a normal chord is made up of three sounds separated by two notes (or tones) on the piano. A normal C chord, for example, would be made up Do-Re-Mi.
Now there are 8 notes in an octave, separating a low note from a higher version of that same note ( Re from a Re, a Mi from a Mi, so on and so forth). The 7th note, which is called the “sensitive note” because it’s a demi-tone away from the last note, is applied to a normal chord to add more musical depth.
If you have a piano, I want you to play this chord. What does the sound remind you of? That’s it, jazz! In music theory, the 7th, 9th, 11th, and 13th notes are designed to add more color and depth into music. Famous French composers like Debussy and Ravel were the first pioneers of impressionist music, because they completely changed Western harmonics and instead built up a system of sound that relied on tone color and light. After the impressionist era, musical genres such as jazz were largely influenced by this change. Examples of jazz pianists who employed impressionism are Bill Evans (my favorite :)), Duke Ellington, and Keith Jarrett.
That’s it for the impressionist art! Stay tuned for more fun, historical facts about music, and here’s a list of pieces that might stir up interest (includes some jazz pieces that are inspired by impressionism):
- Pieces by Claude Debussy:
“Ballade”, “La Plus Que Lente”, “Les Reflets Dans L’Eau”, “Reverie”
- Pieces by Maurice Ravel:
“Pavane pour une infante defunte”, “Sonatine”, “Menuet pour Haydn”, “Piano Concerto No. 2 in E Major, 2nd movement”, “Jeux D’Eau, aka Water Works” (his most beautiful work)
- Bill Evan’s version of My Foolish Heart and Like Someone in Love, and his own composition for jazz trio, “Waltz for Debby”
- Alexander Scriabine, Piano Sonate No. 2 and No. 4
- Erik Satie, “Gymnopedie No. 1”