Suite Bergamasque: Prelude, Menuet, Clair de Lune, Passepied

Claude Debussy (1874 – 1918)

Even by the late 1880s Debussy’s playing was highly individual and was frequently said to possess an orchestral quality. He realised that his ‘ideal music’ was very different to that which surrounded him, and yet he had little clear idea of where his creativity was taking him. Suite Bergamasque, written in 1890, then revised and published in 1905, is in many ways a piece illustrating the transition in Debussy’s mind from Romantic and Classical conventions to his own style of the ‘sound-world’. We do not know how the suite was ‘revised’ before its publication, but it is interesting to compare the Debussy of Deux Arabesques and Rêverie (both 1890-91) to the Debussy of La Mer and the Images (both 1905). The word ‘Bergamasque’ refers to the bergamasca, which is a dance in duple time from Bergamo in Northern Italy, however there is no obvious connection to Debussy’s suite.

The Suite announces itself with a Prelude with a broad range of pitch and dynamics in which, like the Prelude à l’après-midi d’un faune, major and minor 7th degrees of the scale are equally prominent. This prelude is essentially in ternary form, the opening being repeated towards the end. The key changes are unlike those in most romantic music, and – as is true of the whole suite – many of the harmonies would not be out of place in jazz. Most of the resolutions, however, are brought about through scales and other traditional devices, indicating Debussy’s transitional style.

The second movement, Menuet, is perhaps the most revealing of Debussy’s compositional transformation. Textures range from between one- and four-part to the homophonic semiquaver chords heard not long after the beginning. The movement is again in ternary form. It here that Debussy displays his ‘colourific’ genius when, after a sudden, hazy E-flat, the piece builds to a triumphant A-major. A chord of D with a major 7th and 9th heralds the build-up to the climax – a shift into B-minor – followed by a final quiet section reminiscent of the semiquaver chords earlier, before the sound evaporates away into an aeolian glissando in A.

Clair de Lune is perhaps the most well-known of all of Debussy’s piano works, and relies on the arpeggiated left-hand figures to accompany the swelling themes and chords in the right hand, occasionally leading the listener to forget the movement’s ternary form and simple construction. The two main themes are both in D-flat major – one rising, one falling. This is unlike many classical works, in which the second theme would almost always be in a different key to the first, usually the dominant.

In the Passepied, a Baroque dance form, Debussy uses a moto perpetuo effect with subtly modal chords and again the music displays similarities to jazz, with syncopation and cross-rythms. The second theme is varied in many ways throughout the movement, whether by use of contrast between triple and duple times or by inversion, but always seems to sound familiar yet original. The ending of the movement plays on the modal opposition of B and F-sharp, with a widely-spaced texture of ppp chords, concluding in a series of wide and sparse staccato chords.

I love this piece. Partly because it is so colourful, but mostly, I think, because it gives me the most approprate vent for my emotions at this point of my life. In my humble opinion, it's also just plain cool.