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Learn about "Suite bergamasque" by Claude Debussy

Claude Debussy (1862 - 1918), largely heralded as the founder of impressionism, had played an undeniable part in the rejuvenation of symbolic writing and instrumental music. His music was considered as the most “Gallic” – a prominent example of composers who are influenced by multiple aesthetic sources in French music. This model of garnering inspiration from ornamental sources also offered a more comprehensive articulation of emotion and sentiment.

Claude Debussy, composer

Debussy’s Suite bergamasque is a prominent example of this style. The name of this piano piece was inspired by his friend Paul Verlaine’s poem “Clair de Lune.” Verlaine had mentioned “bergamasks,” in the poem - a clumsy dance performed by the inhabitants of Bergamo. Debussy utilized its French version - “bergamasque,” paving the way for the entire composition.

Origin

Suite bergamasque is considered legendary in the field of solo piano pieces. It was crafted in the period between the late 19th century and early 20th century and consists of 4 movements. It’s a truly fascinating work, oozing rich impressionistic caliber, with a somewhat mysterious origin. It is widely believed that Debussy started working on the piece in 1890. In 1905, he revised and published the work titled Suite bergamasque. Although, it is unknown how much of the work was done in either year.

Overview

At the halfway point of the 19th century, Debussy had initiated his own distinct form of art through analytical music vocabulary and perspective. This unique piece concentrated on a host of features from his early music. He implemented transitional tonality, utilized unconventional harmonic spheres and his own condensed trilogy structure. His application of the rich oriental style, pentatonic scales, medieval modes, and parallel chords was nothing short of marvelous.

Debussy’s Suite bergamasque has treaded some unconventional waters, breaking through various musical tonalities, modes, structures, and harmonic textures. It utilizes the “Baroque” suite as a reference point, preserving the names of the traditional suites – Passepied, Menuet, and Prelude. However, there are substantial modifications in the line of thought, harmonic usage, and musical portrayal.

The Movements

Prelude

The first piece is titled “Prelude” and offers a vigorous and dynamic contrast both at the beginning and end. It’s a score created for the festive period and predictably follows the Baroque style. Debussy evokes the sense of improvisation throughout the piece and opens with a triumphant tone. The playful harmonies slowly flow into a climactic end that resembles the opening part.

Menuet

The second movement (A minor) is unique and does not reflect any particular style that Menuets generally share. It offers raw comedy as the composer utilizes an old dance style. The structure resembles the Baroque style and remains true to its roots – Debussy’s impressionism.

Clair de lune

“Moonlight” or “Clair de lune” is the most celebrated movement. It’s sublime harmonies, colorful melodies, when combined with a plateau of notes, creates its own unique and dynamic phrase. Debussy’s rendition of moonlight is a masterpiece in a true sense.

Passepied

The final movement “Passepied” plays out in F minor and is one of the most difficult pieces to perform. It paints a truly complex and marvelous sound, followed by a flawless ending. However, it is surprising swift when compared to its Baroque counterparts, and is performed with “staccato arpeggios,” albeit in the left hand. It depicts a strange yet happy medieval piece.

About Clair de lune

Moonlight reflecting on the water

“Clair de lune” was composed in 1888 and subsequently published in 1903. It is the only piece in Suite bergamasque that isn’t exclusively crafted from Baroque movements. Debussy enjoyed the freedom of articulating his own spin on the music, choosing a compound triple meter for the movement. It is his most adventurous creation, and despite being the third movement, it is the lyrical climax of Suite bergamasque. The opening theme is derived from the music of preceding movements, and the usage of proportion and structure within is highly significant.

It is considered to be a movement that itself warrants a separate analysis. The intriguing and reflective sentiment provoked throughout “Clair de lune” was a deliberate ploy by Debussy. “Clair de lune” means “moonlight” in French and stands true to its meaning – it does remind the listener of a moonlit night. However, the fun fact is, the movement was originally titled “Promenade Sentimentale” – a sentimental walk.

The piece depicts an emotional journey, provoking specifically the sentiments of the listener. However, it is open to interpretation and sparks individual emotions. The listener can make their own unique and personal connection. This is what Claude Debussy intended, to offer that emotional freedom, to not impose pre-determined sensations.

It starts and ends on the tonic and avoids the note until it reaches the end. This further invokes the sense of excitement, as the unpredictability of the movement supplicates the listener’s curiosity. The tonal ambiguities, along with the pause in between is designed to keep the listener hooked to it. The longer the human brain is denied an expected pattern, the greater the emotional release is when it faces the pattern eventually.

Usage of “Clair de lune” in Pop Culture

Man On Fire

Although this film has a more inherent violent and tragic setting, the moments that sparked a murderous spree was preceded by the tune. The character “Pita Ramos” was playing it on the piano and was subsequently kidnapped. In spite of the danger that was looming over the horizon, the piece offered a sense of tranquility in the surrounding.

Atonement

The protagonist in the movie was convicted and sent away for alleged rape. The tune duly captures the raw theme of emptiness and desolation. It also accompanied the protagonist’s journey through a period of the film which depicted horror and rehabilitation.

The Twilight Saga: Eclipse

The piece is used here in a romantic setting, in a timeless journey transcending through the ages. It oozes a perpetual feel that doesn’t end and doesn’t want to.

The Purge

This film deals with the destruction of mankind through our own very hands. “Clair de lune” is utilized here to depict the end of the road, a.k.a. the end of the world. The emptiness, the eerie sense of annihilation, is beautifully portrayed through the masterpiece.  

Ocean’s Eleven

It is used as a sign of contentment, at the end of a successful heist. One can feel the tension melting out as the protagonists sit back and enjoy the spoils of their labor. It isn’t something extraordinary, but something that is truly unforgettable – which is one good feeling.

Conclusion

Suite bergamasque is made of harmonic chords that are comforting, often sounding like a lullaby (Clair de lune). The slow tempo combined with the unfinished phases creates a sense of suspenseful ambiguity, making the piece more reflective. It is authentic Debussy, floating in delicate feelings with improvisatory music. There is a definite calm that transcends through time - a true masterpiece.   

 

 

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