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Paul Verlaine’s 1869 poem “Clair de lune” (Moonlight) was very important for Debussy, who set it twice for voice and piano, as well as presenting it as a sort of tone poem for solo piano in the third movement of his Suite bergamasque. (Gabriel Fauré also set the poem as a song in 1887.) A bergamask was a type of rustic Renaissance dance associated with the Italian town of Bergamo; Verlaine refers to bergamasks in his musically suggestive poem.

Debussy originally wrote the piano pieces of Suite bergamasque around 1890, but made many changes before he published it in 1905. Among those changes was the title; there was no “Clair de lune” in the original version. In its place was a “Promenade sentimentale.” How much of the music Debussy carried over is uncertain, but the final piece is certainly evocative of a moonlit dance, distant in time. Even more so, perhaps, it summons the ecstatic streaming water of fountains from the last lines of the poem; Debussy was the composer of water par excellence.

One of Debussy’s greatest hits, Clair de lune has been arranged for everything from orchestra to organ (by Dimitri Tiomkin for the 1956 film Giant). The arrangement by Alexandre Roelens (1881- 1948) was popularized by Heifetz and Oistrakh.

-John Henken