Clair de Lune by Debussy is the third movement of his popular Suite Bergamasque. It is the most well-known movement in the suite and arguably Debussy’s most famous piece. Claire de lune means ‘moonlight’ in French and was the title of a poem by French poet Paul Verlaine that inspired the music.
This song has all the elements of romantic music, with lush, vibrant harmonies, intriguing melodies, naturalistic themes (moonlight), and a wide range of dynamics. Debussy was an icon of impressionism in music, despite his dislike of the term. He felt that the term was too restrictive, similar to the way artists today reject tendency to be associated with a certain genre. Regardless, much of Debussy’s music understandably was some of the first to bear the impressionist label when it had previously only been used to describe visual art. The dreamlike and ethereal nature of much of his music, including Clair de Lune, fits in with much of the impressionist art at the time. In this article we will look at what piano grade this song is considered, how long it might take to learn, and some of the challenges presented in this piece.
What Grade is Clair de Lune in ABRSM and TCL?
Clair de Lune is not specifically on an exam syllabus for ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music) or TCL (Trinity College London), but it is around grade 8 level difficulty. It is a piece which requires a high level of musicality to interpret well with accuracy and nuance. There are several rhythmic elements that can be quite difficult to play with an effortless sound. The rhythm must be played precisely while at the same time giving a sense of weightlessness and freedom. There are also several quick 16th notes in the second section. The music is meant to evoke certain feelings and imagery which must be controlled by the pianist’s precise touch. A comparable piece on the ABRSM grade 8 syllabus is Reverie by Debussy. This ethereal piece is written in common time in the key of F major. It is five pages long and while it contains more straightforward rhythms throughout the piece than Clair de Lune, it still requires an excellent command of touch and tone to bring out an effective interpretation of Debussy’s ‘sound picture’. True to its name, the wandering melody evokes a sense of a daydream. A comparable piece on the TCL grade 8 piano syllabus is Intermezzo in B minor, op. 119 no. 1 by Brahms. It is in the key of B minor and written in 3/8 time. It is only 2 pages long but because it is played at an adagio tempo, the piece draws out to a similar length. Another romantic piece, it contains chromatic harmonies and an overall somber, contemplative tone.
How Long Does It Take to Learn Clair de Lune?
The music for this piece is about four pages long and played at an andante tempo, “tres expressif,’ or very expressive. It is written in 9/8 and mostly in D-flat major but has a section of six measures where it changes to E major before returning to D-flat major. Some of the biggest challenges in this piece are playing accurate, even rhythm, while maintaining a nuanced touch in the fingers to produce the right tone. The tempo is also rather fluid and some of the 16th notes may feel quite fast. Throughout the score, Debussy gives instructions as to how certain passages should be played, such as ‘Tempo Rubato’ in measure 15 or ‘diminuendo molto’ which means much softer, in measure 25. At the beginning of the piece, it says ‘con sordina,’ or with mute. This means to use the soft pedal for much of the piece, but it is at the pianist’s discretion as to how much to use it. Some editions indicate exactly where to lift the soft pedal completely. It is also understood that the sustain pedal is used throughout the piece, with discretion. If you have a sostenuto pedal on your piano, you can use it to hold bass notes while playing unaffected notes in the higher register, such as in measures 15-24.
Rubato comes from the Italian word ‘to rob’ and means to ‘rob’ time in a sense to temporarily increase or decrease the flow of the tempo for effect.
There is extensive use of duplets throughout the piece, or two notes that take the time of three notes.
These are basically reverse triplets and give the effect of temporarily stretching out the tempo of the music. Be sure to play their full value and not play them as regular eighth notes.
In the middle section, there are several 16th notes that must be played pianissimo.
‘Un poco mosso’ means a little less motion, which contrasts with the expressiveness of the previous section. You might imagine this section as new ripples on a moonlit lake, ebbing and flowing as the water moves and stills. Practice using a very light touch and controlling the tone on the quicker notes to effectively shape the sound.
The climax of the piece happens with a shift to E major.
The left and right hand must seamlessly play the arpeggios to accompany the melody in the right hand. Be sure to practice this section very slowly to understand the movement necessary to create this effect. The arpeggios climb up and the melody lingers in the high register of the piano before dramatically coming back down in thirds.
The end of this section is almost like dimming a bright light. After the ‘brighter’ sound of E major, the piece returns to D-flat major.
There are 72 measures in this piece. It could take an upper intermediate pianist up to 3-4 months to play this piece effectively if they learned about 5 measures per week, plus 2-4 weeks to bring it to a performance level. A more advanced player may be able to learn the notes faster in 1-2 months. But fine tuning the performance of various passages will likely be more time consuming than learning the notes themselves.
If You Can Play Clair de Lune, Are You Considered “Good” at Piano?
This is a relatively advanced piece in terms of interpretive difficulty, and it is about a grade 8 level piece, so you might be able to superficially use the term “good” to describe your skill at the piano if you can play it. However, a mature pianist will understand that this is a very subjective term. If you can play this piece in front of people who don’t play piano, you may seem rather virtuosic. But if you play this piece in front of people familiar with piano repertoire, they may be less impressed. In the grand scheme of piano repertoire, it is probably somewhere in the middle regarding difficulty. Also, it’s one thing if you are able to play all the notes in a piece, but it is another thing if you can play them well, which is a better indicator of skill. Ultimately, you should choose a piece based on how much you enjoy it and what you can learn from it, rather than how ‘good’ it makes you seem to others.
Clair de Lune is a gorgeous piece that would expand your repertoire nicely into romantic and impressionist music. Being able to fully express the range of emotions in this piece would be a great way for a pianist to grow technically and musically. While the tempo does vary a bit, it shouldn’t be so varied that you lose the meter of the piece. Be sure to start slow and only play the piece as fast as you can manage the quicker moving sections. The sooner you start, the sooner you can enjoy playing this beautiful song.