Week 29: “Clair De Lune” by Claude Debussy

I took piano lessons for almost a decade as a child, but by mid-high school I gave up on it because, well, it was too hard. But during my first year at University, I realized how much I missed it, and so after classes I would make regular trips to the music building, where the practice rooms for music students were found. Doing my best to look like a music student, (it’s easy: just mess up your hair and wear your glasses crooked) I would sneak in and play until my fingers got tired, or until I could hear someone practicing in the next room who was embarrassingly better than me.

There are few songs for piano as perfect as “Clair De Lune” by Claude Debussy. In fact, most of his music deserves to be on this list. No other composer, in my opinion, so regularly approaches the line between beautiful and schmaltzy without actually crossing it. Anyway, my goal was to learn how to play this piece, at the rate of one page per day. The plan went brilliantly for exactly three days; for a song so famous, it’s not a technically difficult piece. Then page four happened. That’s the arpeggiated section that begins about two minutes into the piece. I realized that no matter how much I messed up my hair, or how crookedly I wore my glasses, it was going to take a lot more time to learn this than I had available.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. 1:08. The opening of the song is gorgeous, but the most wonderful chords come here, when the pianist’s left hand is way down low, and the right hand is way up high, playing a chord whose name I don’t know, but which includes the 2nd of the scale. Putting the 2nd of the scale into a minor chord results in a cluster of notes preferred by composers who write theme songs for soap operas. But of course, when they do it, it makes you want to scratch your eyes out; when Debussy does it, it makes you want to cry your eyes out.

2. 1:50. The arpeggiated section, mentioned above. Trust me, it becomes even more beautiful and awe-inspiring once you’ve tried to play it yourself.

3. 3:44. After the arpeggiated section, we’re back to the sequence that started the song, except this time, Debussy sneaks in the 7th, which somehow makes it seem less heartbreaking, and more heartwarming.

Recommended listening activity:

Writing your name in a fogged-up bus window.

Buy it here.