10 surprisingly good covers of Debussy's 'Clair de lune'
Expect to see lots of tributes to Claude Debussy in 2018, the year that marks the 100th anniversary of his death.
Debussy is remembered as an innovator, sidestepping tonality with whole-tone and pentatonic scales, introducing jazz harmonies to classical music, and rethinking the accepted paradigms of orchestration.
But his most famous piece of music — the third movement, "Clair de lune," from his Suite bergamasque for solo piano — is an early work and is actually rather conventional, never straying far from its home key of D-flat major and following a familiar A-B-A structure.
What Debussy's "Clair de lune" may lack in formal innovation, it more than makes up for with its wistful melody and atmospheric evocation of moonlight fleetingly reflected on water. It's five minutes of piano perfection.
Like all good pieces of music, "Clair de lune" attracts performers of various stripes wishing to place their interpretive stamp on it. Among the more unusual covers we found, these 10 stood out.
1. Theremin and piano
Randy George is a self-taught theremin player who has learned to tame this notoriously wild instrument. His performance of "Clair de lune" is sober but also quite touching.
2. Electric guitar
U.K. guitarist Paul Bielatowicz grew up idolizing Eddie Van Halen, teaches at the Brighton Institute of Modern Music and plays in the Carl Palmer Band. He also says Georges Cziffra's recording of Franz Liszt's Années de Pèlerinage is the best album ever. Interesting, right?
Have a listen to his take on Debussy.
3. Jazz saxophone
On his 2015 triple album, The Epic, saxophonist Kamasi Washington throws everything but the kitchen sink into his 11-minute jazz improvisation on "Clair de lune." There's Hammond B3 organ, strings, even a gospel choir — a glorious commentary on the French composer who first incorporated elements of jazz into Western classical music.
Fifty years ago, almost to the day, American Dominic Caruso released World's Greatest Accordion Hits and squeezed his way into our hearts with track five, "Clair de lune," whose B section gets a brief polka treatment in Caruso's capable hands.
5. Men's choir and piano
Mélo'Men is a gay men's choir in Paris. In this arrangement of "Clair de lune," the choir sings the words from Paul Verlaine's poem, Clair de lune, while the original piano part remains intact, played here by Efrem Garcia i Salinas.
6. Bassoon sextet
What is it about the sonority of woodwinds that suits the music of the Parisian belle époque so well? This arrangement of "Clair de lune" for six bassoons simulates the effects of an absinthe buzz at a sidewalk café in Montmartre.
7. Brass quintet
You know how brass players always want to do everything better than everyone else? Well, in this case, we forgive them — this beautiful, sensitive arrangement of "Clair de lune" (by Sgt. Maj. Chuck Seipp) fits the U.S. Army Brass Quintet to a T.
8. Clarinet quartet
These YouTube rabbit holes can lead to pleasant discoveries, such as the very fine 10th and Broadway Clarinet Quartet. Their performance of A.R. May's arrangement of "Clair de lune" was recorded live at Legacy Hall in Columbus, Ohio, and sounds great, a couple of squeaks notwithstanding.
French organist/conductor/composer Serge Ollive made this arrangement of "Clair de lune" and plays it on his Hauptwerk virtual pipe organ that uses audio samples from a Cavaillé-Col organ in Caen. It's very cool.
There have been many orchestral arrangements of Debussy's Suite bergamasque over the years. Those by André Caplet and Leopold Stokowski are probably the most famous, but our favourite orchestral arrangement of "Clair de lune" is by conductor Stanley Black who recorded it in 1970 with the London Symphony Orchestra. Listen to the basses!
Before we move on, let's remind ourselves how awesome Debussy's original is: