Today marks the 150th birthday of influential impressionist composer Claude Debussy. Despite my strong affinity for his work, both as a listener and as a hobbyist piano player, it’s a date I probably wouldn’t have been aware of if I hadn’t started working in the Minnesota Public Radio building this year and sharing cube space with employees of MPR’s Classical station.
But I’m glad to know about Debussy’s birthday today and reflect on some of his most notable works. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the year I started working in such close proximity to all these classical music experts has also been a time of great rediscovery between me and my favorite instrument; after years away from it, I purchased a used piano over the winter and have slowly been re-learning some of the old songs I loved to play.
Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” has always been my favorite piece, and when I think back on my years of classical training it was easily the piece I knew how to play the best. There were certainly more technically challenging pieces in my repoirtoire—Beethoven’s Sonata Pathétique and Mozart’s Fantasias were among some of the flashiest—but I loved “Clair de Lune” for its colors, tones, and space.
I have a few vivid memories of Debussy’s piano music that stick with me to this day, and when I think back on them I realize they still inform the way I listen to and experience music. The first happened when my piano teacher introduced me to the composer by playing me a few recordings of his songs, and instructed me to gaze up at a Degas painting of a pair of ballerinas that hung above her piano as we listened to the songs. “Do you see the edge of the skirt here, how it blends into the background so there is no way to tell where the ballerina ends and the background begins?” she instructed. “Debussy’s music is meant to be played this way, in this blurred space.”
Did I mention she was a very good teacher?
My second memory of Debussy comes a few years later, when I had progressed through a few different pieces and learned to play “Clair de Lune.” After months of learning the chords, figuring out the impossible key change mid-song, and practicing to blur measures of notes together with the pedal, I showed up to a lesson and played the piece not only accurately, but interpretively. For the first time in a decade-plus of learning the instrument, it was one of the first times I remember really playing with a song, toying with the tempo, swelling with the notes as the cascaded up and down instead of dutifully mimicking the rhythms and dynamics that were printed on the page. I poured a piece of myself into the song, and when I finished, I looked up to find that my teacher had tears in her eyes. It’s the proudest moment I’ve ever had as a performer, and that kind of musical expression is something I seek out in other performers to this day.
So in honor of Claude and what a sentimental sap he has made me, I’d like to tip my hat to “Clair de Lune” and offer up a brief history of its lasting impact on popular music.
“Clair de Lune” has long been a staple for movie soundtracks, dating back to the 1940s. It was a key part of the soundtrack to James Dean’s final film, Giant, and here’s Larry Adler playing a surprisingly beautiful rendition of it on the harmonica in 1944’s Music for Millions:
One famous use in recent years is at the ending to the re-make of Ocean’s Eleven, as the cast stares out at the fountains of the Belaggio in Las Vegas:
And it even appears as a bonus track on one of the Twilight soundtracks:
In pop music
Once you famliarize yourself with the melody of “Clair de Lune,” you’ll start hearing it everywhere; it’s become an especially popular song to sample and has been featured on many hip-hop and dance tracks. My favorite use of the song is in Janelle Monae’s “Say You’ll Go,” which beautifully intertwines an excerpt of the piece:
And of course the words “Clair de Lune” have been appropriated by a few local different artists. Remember the first Minneapolis-based Clair de Lune, which was active in the mid-2000s and released an album on national imprint Deep Elm Records?
Now we have a new local artist keeping the tradition alive: vocalist Claire de Lune, who just released her first solo EP this year and is a member of hip-hop trio the Chalice.