How Hard Is Debussy’s Clair de Lune Difficulty?

Clair de Lune Difficulty
Clair de Lune Difficulty

In case you are not familiar with this piece of music, it was composed by the French Impressionist Claude Debussy and is one of his most adored compositions. It is the third piece in a series of four piano pieces Debussy titled ‘Suite Bergamasque’, composed in the same year his beloved daughter ‘Chouchoux’ was born.

The origins of the piece are in themselves quite fascinating. Clair de lune translates broadly as ‘moonlight’, and was a title that Debussy adapted from one of his favorite poets, the Symbolist Paul Verlaine. Previously Debussy had set this poem for voice and piano but it is this piano evocation that has proved to be the more popular work.

Clair de Lune Difficulty

As a piano piece ‘Clair de lune’ is dream-like and at times ethereal. It floats weightlessly on a vision of enchantment.

Debussy plays with harmony in the piece like the impressionist painters did with light to create a musical landscape that has a compelling calmness and tranquillity that perhaps accounts for its lasting appeal. This brings one of the many challenges of ‘Clair de lune’. Unlike some of Debussy’s piano pieces, ‘Clair de lune’ has textural transparency that requires the pianist to have an assured technique that allows for the clarity of the music not to be ruined.

Over pedaling in place of technique is what I am referring to. The apparent simplicity and delicacy of ‘Clair de lune’ can easily give way to the impression that it is not technically demanding, it is just that the technical demands are not virtuosic as in some other Debussy works.

There are many arrangements of this classic piano piece that alter any number of aspects of the original music. What they do provide are more accessible versions of this beautiful music but often the compromise is a little too much for my taste. Debussy composed ‘Clair de lune’ in the rich, warm key of D flat major. At a first glance, this in itself could be perceived as a difficulty, yet the key falls easily under the pianist’s fingers once the mind remembers the five flats of the key signature.

Another very important element is the ‘tempo’ marking. Debussy writes at the top of the piece, ‘Andante tres expressif’, meaning relatively slowly but very expressively played. Here is the clue to the pianistic challenges of ‘Clair de lune’. Many pianists would comment that this is the distinction between a technically difficult piece and a pianistically difficult one.

Looking in more detail at the music, the opening flows with relative ease until you reach bar ten. Here some of the technicalities begin to enter as Debussy writes four-note left-hand chords flowed in bar thirteen by the melody played in octaves in the right hand. There are also some rhythmic considerations as the 9/8 time-signature indicates three groups of three-quavers (eighth-notes), per bar with a gentle emphasis on each group of three. In bars thirteen and fourteen, however, Debussy uses duplets (or two notes in the time of three), that are ties across from the second to the third beat of the bar. They should not be rushed.

As with many of Debussy’s works the tempo does not remain static, instead, it flexes, expanding, and contracting to create a sense of movement and direction, allowing the music to breathe. Judging the extent of these subtle changes can be hard to measure. At bar twenty-seven the accompanying figure changes to rippling semi-quavers (16th notes). It is arpeggiated and not overly difficult to play but maintaining a balance between the hands here is more of a challenge.

The phrasing in these passages feels as if it has lengthened and it is important to ensure the intimacy of the melody is not lost as the accompanying figure begins to span a larger range of the piano. Towards the middle of the piece Debussy changes key to the tonic minor (C# minor), and with this change comes a push forward In terms of tempo. Dynamically the music is reaching its first climactic moment just before the music descends quietly towards the tonic key and a section Debussy marks ‘Calmato’.

In the final section of ‘Clair de lune’, Debussy softens the volume to triple piano (very soft), as the opening melody returns. Being able to produce this range of dynamics on the piano is not easy and presents another level of difficulty. If the soft passages are too soft then the color can be lost and the touch needed to sound every note, precise and assured. Equally, if the loud passages become overly loud, then the music can sound harsh and the spell of the piece is broken.

Careful consideration of how to pedal this composition is also key to its success. You will note that at the beginning, Debussy includes the words con sordina, or with the mute. This would indicate that Debussy intended, at least the opening of the piece, to be played with the una corda pedal to create a less resonate, subdued start to the piece. The issue of where and how to add the sostenuto pedal is one of taste and sensitive discretion.

Amongst the pianists who express opinions on various piano internet sites, they hold ‘Clair de lune’ at around Grade VI/VII in terms of difficulty. As far as I can remember it has never been a piece that has been included in the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music practical examinations, but the grading would seem fair.

The vital element to keep in mind when approaching this piece is how to play in a manner that Debussy intended and that is in keeping with the conventions of the early 20th Century. There are technical aspects of ‘Clair de lune’ that require focused practice, but nothing unapproachable or fundamentally unpianistic.

Debussy was by all accounts a highly polished pianist and he knew exactly what he was writing and the instrument he was composing for. Interpretation then remains at the heart of the challenges for this wonderful Impressionist work.

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