Nuit du carnaval (Henri Rousseau, 1886).
In an art song, there are many layers of meaning.
There is the meaning of the sounds of the music.
There is the meaning of the words of the text.
There is also the meaning of the sounds of the words themselves.
Listen to the sounds of the text read in French.
Another reading, with a poetic translation into English in the subtitles.
“Clair de lune” (Paul Verlaine, 1869)
Votre âme est un paysage choisi
Que vont charmant masques et bergamasques
Jouant du luth et dansant et quasi
Tristes sous leurs déguisements fantasques.
Tout en chantant sur le mode mineur
L’amour vainqueur et la vie opportune
Ils n’ont pas l’air de croire à leur bonheur
Et leur chanson se mêle au clair de lune,
Au calme clair de lune triste et beau,
Qui fait rêver les oiseaux dans les arbres
Et sangloter d’extase les jets d’eau,
Les grands jets d’eau sveltes parmi les marbres.
Your soul is a delicate landscape
Where roam charming masks and bergamasques*
Playing the lute and dancing and seeming almost
Sad under their whimsical disguises.
While singing in a minor key
Of victorious love and easy life
They don’t seem to believe in their happiness
And their song mingles with the moonlight,
With the sad and beautiful moonlight,
Which makes the birds in the trees dream
And sob with ecstasy the water streams,
The great slim water streams among the marbles.
*Masks = masked players; bergamasques = dancers of a rustic peasant dance called the bergamasque or bergamask, supposedly derived from Bergamo in northern Italy (you can see here a reference to the migration of commedia dell’arte from Italy to France). The bergamasque is supposed to be an awkward, clumsy, buffoonish dance.
Debussy’s first version of the song, written in 1882.
A live performance by South African soprano Pretty Yende.
Debussy’s second version, written in 1891.
Debussy also wrote a piano piece called “Clair de lune” as part of his Suite bergamasque (bergamasques again!) in 1891 (he revised it for publication in 1905).
The piece has been orchestrated many times. This version was cut from Disney’s classic 1940 film Fantasia.
Here is Gabriel Fauré’s setting of the Verlaine poem, written in 1887, in between Debussy’s two versions.
“Au clair de la lune” is an old French folk song in which the protagonist takes advantage of an opportunity that presents itself unexpectedly (talk about “la vie opportune”!)
“By the light of the moon,
My friend Pierrot,
Lend me your quill
To write a word.
My candle is dead,
I have no light left.
Open your door for me
For the love of God.”
By the light of the moon,
“I don’t have any pens,
I am in my bed
Go to the neighbor’s,
I think she’s there
Because in her kitchen
Someone is lighting the fire.”
By the light of the moon
Knocks on the brunette’s door.
She suddenly responds:
– Who’s knocking like that?
He then replies:
– Open your door
for the God of Love!
By the light of the moon
One could barely see.
The pen was looked for,
The light was looked for.
With all that looking
I don’t know what was found,
But I do know that the door
Shut itself on them.
Debussy quotes the melody throughout his 1881 song “Pierrot”:
The text is a poem by Theodore de Banville.
The good Pierrot, whom the crowd watches,
Having finished at Harlequin’s wedding,
Wanders as in a dream along the Boulevard du Temple.
A young girl in a flimsy blouse
In vain entices him with her scamp’s eye;
And meanwhile, mysterious and shiny
Making him its dearest delight,
The white moon with horns of a bull
Casts a glance offstage
At his friend Jean Gaspard Deburau.