From a poor family, Claude Debussy (1862-1918) was accepted in paris conservatory at the age of ten. He took Cesar Franck’s harmony class, but didn’t like the rules of harmony. Despite being a lousy student, he was a brilliant music writer, and eventually ascended to being a Prix de Rome winner. After the victory he lived in italy for two years, where he was miserable. He came back to Paris and made an effort to find more like-minded people and idols. One of these idols was Victor Hugo, whose death in 1885 was a really impactful event for many French people, including Debussy.
Debussy wrote Suite Bergamasque in 1890, but revised it significantly before publication in 1905. It is a suite of four pieces, based off of the Baroque dance suites.
The prelude, in F major, does draw some influence from the prelude style of the earliest preludes. See below the beginning measure where Debussy writes a chord followed by a long solo melody in the right hand. This was a device used in those early preludes, as the left hand would supply harmonic content and then let the right hand play freely.
Though there are some very challenging sections, this piece is definitely a good teaching piece for students, as it is a good introduction to double thirds in the right hand (for, it has them, but very few), and has interesting harmonic shifts.
In the Minuet, there are more double thirds, adding difficulty for the student. The opening has a melody in the middle voice with the top and bottom voices playing above and below it. The opening theme is also in D dorian mode; modal music is typical of Claude Debussy.
Clair de Lune
Originally titled “Promenade sentimentale,” Clair de Lune is arguably the most well known piece of classical literature. Translating to “Moonlight,” the piece begins in a precarious 9/8, and sounds to a layperson as having no meter, or “free time”:
The end of the opening section has a section where Debussy voices his chords in the very bottom and close to the top of the register, and like Ravel, voices upper extension voices on the top. The section begins with an Eb minor chord voicing out the 9th:
There is then a fast section in which the main progression is a Db major, F minor, Fb major (with an Ab in the bass). This is very interesting because Fb major is not in the key of Db major. This is a borrowed chord from Db minor, a hypothetical key usually notated as C# major for the musicians convenience. The A section then comes back slightly different, and there is a small coda to end it.
Though it was composed under the name “Pavane,” Debussy ultimately decided on the Passepied, another Baroque dance. It is in F# minor, with the left hand beginning with an upstart staccato pattern:
One of the challenges to this movement is its polyrhythmic elements, with many places of four against three. In these situations, the left hand has the sixteenth notes and the right hand has the triplets, which is atypical, as usually the hands are in separate roles, as in Chopin’s Nocturnes for example.
Some editions of Debussy’s music include:
- Henle Verlag
- Auguste Durand
- Louis Schoenewerk
Some notable performers with recordings of this piece include:
- Claudio Arrau
- Sviatoslav Richter
- Walter Gieseking
Captain Thaddius’ Hot Take:
This is a very approachable suite. Clair de lune is especially good for young students who only want to play music they know and like, as this piece is perhaps the most well known piano piece in the repertoire.