Claude Debussy's "Claire De Lune"
When I was a child, I made my late grandmother play me, time and time again several pieces on the piano: Beethoven’s final frenetic movement of the Moonlight Sonata and Chopin’s “Black Key” etude, named because almost every note is played on a black key. These pieces have always been beyond my own modest piano abilities but one that isn’t and remains to this day, my favourite of all, is Claude Debussy’s “Claire De Lune”. For years, I have played it daily and I never get tired of listening to it either. Lately, I’ve asked myself what is so special about this music and why, in particular, this composition has been used so often across Television and Film with familiarity never impeding its power?
From The Simpsons to Oceans 11, “Claire De Lune” has appeared in many disguises and when it does, the scenes light up and are etched in our memories. No dialogue, no special camera work, no expensive CGI required. The music literally makes the scene. I have tried hard to uncover another classical composition, which comes close to offering the same effect. Perhaps, if I did, I’d win awards for best music supervisor.
Let’s delve a little deeper for a moment and discuss the musical qualities that make Debussy’s “Claire De Lune” so endearing to TV and Film. Firstly, the piece is in D-flat major (This is as much music theory you’ll get so rest easy). This is a personal favourite key of mine. The likes of Chopin’s Prelude titled “Rain Drops”, Schumann’s “Mondnacht” lieder, or Liszt’s Contemplation no3 are in the same key amongst many others. Somehow, this is one of those scales that resonates feelings of nostalgia, warmth, and love. But “Claire De Lune” stands out from the others as it also epitomises the greatness of impressionist music. It has one melodic theme, flowing uninterrupted. The music retains a tonal focus but the flowing arpeggio chords seem independent. Occasionally, the odd dissonance appears, but somehow brings us closer rather than repels. And unlike his predecessors, Debussy loathes resolution. Instead, he wants us to experience and enjoy the music as it comes. The result is music that is so easy and comforting to our ears, effortlessly painting pictures evoking moods, feeling, atmosphere, or… scenes.
Perhaps, the clincher in why this composition works so well is that there are few piano compositions with all the qualities described above that also lend so well to an orchestral arrangement. Debussy may never have dreamt up his composition for orchestra, yet I’d like to think he would have approved.. With a full orchestra, the music fills us with a peaceful serenity that makes us dream and think of good (and bad) times. And that very rare quality is a dream come true for film makers and music supervisors.
I rarely use the word “genius” to describe anything or anyone so as to keep its value. But, without hesitation “Claire De Lune”, is a work of genius that was born for TV and Film makers, past, present and future. I leave you with one example of this music in action (arranged by Marvin Hamlisch): The final scene in Garry Marshall’s Frankie & Johnny starting Michelle Pfeiffer and Al Pacino.
A happy and peaceful Christmas season to everyone.