In one of the most charming doodles in recent memory, Google is honoring the 151st birthday of French composer Claude Debussy. The animated moonlit trip down the Seine is appropriately underscored by—and indeed, impressively synchronized with—Debussy’s most famous work for piano, “Clair de Lune” (or “Moonlight”), the third movement from the dance work, Suite bergamasque.
Though a young Debussy began work on his suite—a popular Baroque form comprising different dances like the minuet and sarabande—in 1890, he revised his four entries (a prelude, menuet, and passepied, along with “Clair de Lune”) fairly substantially before publication in 1905. The set carries his trademark iridescent harmonic coloring and subtle references to world musics like the Javanese gamelan—the combination of which has been erroneously described as “impressionistic” in order to tie him to the visual vocabulary of painters like Claude Monet. But as François Lesure points out in his Grove entry on Debussy, the world of symbolist poets and artists like Mallarmé in which the composer spent his youth is a more accurate, if still incomplete, place to look for his formative aesthetic influences.
“Clair de Lune” was specifically inspired by a poem of the same title by the symbolist poet Paul Verlaine, from whose texts Debussy frequently drew inspiration. The poem paints a peaceful, melancholy scene in which the subject’s soul is compared to a nighttime party of masked revelers who, according to Norman R. Shapiro’s translation of the French, are “just a bit sad to be / Hidden beneath their fanciful disguise.”
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