Tuesday, June 6, 2017

DEBUSSY's "Clair De Lune"

The ending scene of Ocean's Eleven is one that is quite well-known indeed, and Claude Debussy's "Clair de Lune" (or, at least, one of the orchestrations of "Clair de Lune" - but we'll get there soon enough) is a piece that is instantly recognizable - not just from this movie, of course, but in just about anything where a feeling of languid reverie is desired. Not too shabby for a man who was never really seen as more than a bizarre little composer by Those That Know More About Music Than You in his time.

Photograph of Claude Debussy
Photograph of Claude Debussy
(Photo credit: 

Claude-Achille Debussy was born in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France, in 1862 to a family who was non-musical but supportive of their son's burgeoning talents. He began taking piano lessons at the age of 7, and enrolled in the Paris Conservatoire at 10. As a student, he was that kid - instead of just sitting back, learning the fundamentals of harmony The Way They Were Always Taught and then futzing with them later, he insisted on adding odd harmonies and dissonances into his exercises. Even so, he did manage to win the Prix de Rome (for those who have forgotten, a competition for young composers in which the first prize was a musical education in Rome) in 1884, and studied there for three years.

In 1888, Debussy traveled to Bayreuth in what appeared to be a rite of passage for young composers by this time, and was floored by what he saw there. Though his music never featured the extreme emotional highs and lows of Wagner, he was still influenced by his unusual harmonic progressions (though in a particularly sassy moment, he did turn the beginning of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde into a big ol' joke - to great effect, no less, even including a bout of the giggles played by the piano accompaniment immediately after the quote). Around this time, he met and became friends with Erik Satie, another French composer who shared Debussy's somewhat iconoclastic musical tastes. He had several tumultuous love affairs, but as a personality, was never particularly well-known during his own lifetime (though he was able to afford a rather comfortable lifestyle). In what he saw as a rather grave insult, he was given the adjective "impressionist" as a way to describe his music; however, the similarities between his music and impressionist art can't be denied (for one, his lack of orthodox harmony leads to a sort of blurred-around-the-edges quality to his music). His music ended up being incredibly important in the grand scheme of music history exactly because of that lack of orthodox harmony - he ran with what Wagner did in terms of breaking away from classical harmonic theory and introducing things like the whole-tone and pentatonic scales, as well as bringing back the medieval modes.

Very quickly: the major and minor scales (the ones used in most music heard on a daily basis) are comprised of a pattern of whole and semitones. For instance, in C major, because there is a note in between C and D (C sharp or D flat, depending on whether your glass is half full or empty), the interval between C and D is a whole tone. There is nothing in between E and F, so that is considered a semitone. For the record, the difference between a minor scale (a natural minor scale, anyway) and a major scale is simply the placement of the semitones - in major scales, the first semitone is between the third and fourth notes and the second is between the seventh and first notes, and in minor scales, the first semitone is between the second and third notes and the second is between the fifth and sixth notes. It's this combination of whole and semitones that makes those lovely major and minor chords that almost every pop song ever uses (with the notable and distinct exception of "Single Ladies" by Beyonce, but that's an entirely different story...). The whole-tone scale, true to its name, has no semitones, and if it started on C, the rest of the scale would follow as D-E-F#-G#-A# (or Bb)-C. It has no tonal center, so to speak, and so is often used in dream sequences in movies as well as underwater scenes.

The set of medieval modes is yet another way of creating harmony. Instead of 'major' and 'minor,' there are seven modes (each named after an ethnic group that lived around ancient Greece). The names of the modes are the same now as they were then, but they have been shuffled around a bit so that the Dorian of today was not the Dorian of 300 B.C. The easiest way of visualizing the modes is to - once again - take our trusty C major scale. Conveniently enough, the C major scale is also the first mode, called Ionian. To get the other modes, all you need to do is take the C major scale - C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C - and start it on a different note in that scale. The next mode, Dorian, starts on D (unfortunately, that is the only one whose name matches its starting note), and is then D-E-F-G-A-B-C-D, and it goes on for every note in the scale. For the record, the names of the modes are Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian (a favorite of folk singers and the 1960s in general), Aeolian, and Locrian - in that order.

Hah. "Very quickly," indeed. Hey - it's not my fault that Debussy was into all this weird musical stuff.

"Clair de Lune" itself is, like most pieces featured on this blog, part of a larger work - in this case, the Suite Bergamasque, a piano suite written in 1890 but revised and not published until 1905. A suite of music, for our purposes, is simply a collection of pieces that can each be performed alone but has some sort of unifying theme. In the case of the Suite Bergamasque, each piece is a musical illustration of a poem by Paul Verlaine - sort of like a symphonic poem minus the orchestra. "Clair de Lune" means "moon shine" (without the alcoholic connotation, of course), and the piece does really sound like a moonlit night. Much like our man Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody, the piece is most well-known in its orchestrated form - having that dripping harmony played by strings oozing with pathos is much more conducive to big cinematic scenes at the Bellagio, of course - one orchestrator being Leopold Stokowski (among other things, he was the conductor in Fantasia).

So there you have it - a piece that represents quite a lot in the theory world. I hope I didn't get too pedantic with the theory; I know that's really not the most interesting thing in the world to read. But hey, the school year's starting again, and perhaps someone will Google "just how the hell do modes make sense?" and this entry will help them out. Debussy might even be a little proud of that, but then again, he was always a little bizarre.


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