Hear Debussy Play Debussy’s Most Famous Piece, “Clair de lune” (1913)

Claude Debussy died in 1918, at the age of 55: still quite young for a com­pos­er, and still quite ear­ly in the his­to­ry of sound record­ing. This means that, a lit­tle over a cen­tu­ry lat­er, we have a great many record­ings of Debussy’s music, but pre­cious few record­ings of Debussy’s music played by the man him­self. Once he accom­pa­nied opera singer Mary Gar­den in the per­for­mance of three mélodies from Ari­ettes oubliées, his cycle based on the poet­ry of Paul Ver­laine. Those record­ings were made in 1904, and sound it. But in his final years, Debussy also pre­served his play­ing with an out­ward­ly more prim­i­tive tech­nol­o­gy that nev­er­the­less sounds much more pleas­ing today: the piano roll.

Designed to be fed into and auto­mat­i­cal­ly repro­duced by spe­cial­ly engi­neered instru­ments, the piano roll — an ear­ly form of the music media we’ve enjoyed over the past few gen­er­a­tions — was com­mer­cial­ly pio­neered by the Amer­i­can com­pa­ny M. Welte & Sons. “It is impos­si­ble to attain a greater per­fec­tion of repro­duc­tion than that of the Welte appa­ra­tus,” Debussy once wrote to Edwin Welte, co-inven­tor of the fam­i­ly com­pa­ny’s Welte-Mignon Repro­duc­ing Piano.

The four­teen pieces Debussy record­ed for Welte include the Sym­bol­ist- and Impres­sion­ist-inspired “La soirée dans Grenade,” pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture, as well as his most beloved and wide­ly heard work, “Clair de lune.”

Imme­di­ate­ly rec­og­niz­able in iso­la­tion, the also Ver­laine-based “Clair de lune” con­sti­tutes one of the four move­ments of the Suite berga­masque. The entire piece was first pub­lished in 1905, but Debussy had actu­al­ly begun its com­po­si­tion fif­teen years before that. The still-fre­quent use of the third move­ment in pop­u­lar cul­ture has, at this point, made it dif­fi­cult to hear the essen­tial qual­i­ties of the piece itself; under such cir­cum­stances, who bet­ter to bring those qual­i­ties out than the com­pos­er him­self? The video at the top of the post presents a repro­duc­tion of “Clair de lune” from the piano roll that Debussy made 109 years ago, the next best thing to hav­ing him at the piano. Enthu­si­asts won­der what Debussy would have writ­ten had he lived longer; hear­ing this, they may also won­der what he would have record­ed had he stuck around for the hi-fi age.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Debussy’s “Clair de lune”: The Clas­si­cal Music Visu­al­iza­tion with 21 Mil­lion Views

A Dancer Pays a Grav­i­ty-Defy­ing Trib­ute to Claude Debussy

Hear Debussy Play Debussy: A Vin­tage Record­ing from 1913

Rach­mani­noff Plays Rach­mani­noff: Three Famous Pieces, 1919–1929

Hear Rav­el Play Rav­el in 1922

Gersh­win Plays Gersh­win: Hear the Orig­i­nal Record­ing of Rhap­sody in Blue, with the Com­pos­er Him­self at the Piano (1924)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (8)
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  • Janet Curry says:

    This moves me to my core. No words can express my feel­ings lis­ten­ing to him play this piece of art.

    Thank you.

  • Christos Marinos says:

    With all due respect, allow me to explain why this arti­cle is inac­cu­rate. Debussy nev­er record­ed “Clair de lune”. In the cd titled “Debussy plays Debussy”, the com­pos­er actu­al­ly plays 7 of the fea­tured works. “Clair de lune” is played by Suzanne Godenne (the same record­ing you post­ed in your arti­cle can be found on YouTube under dif­fer­ent url address­es ~ with Godenne’s name and not Debussy’s).

    Here is a com­plete list of Debussy’s record­ings made on piano rolls:
    Children’s Cor­ner Suite
    D’un cahi­er d’esquiss­es
    Estam­pes: La soirée dans Grenade
    La plus que lente
    Préludes I: Danseuses de Delphes
    La cathé­drale engloutie
    La Danse de Puck
    Préludes I: Min­strels
    Le vent dans la plaine

    The acousti­cal record­ings Debussy made were with Mary Gar­den.

    Thank you. Hap­py New Year!

  • Christos Marinos says:

    Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the pianist in this record­ing is Suzanne Godenne, and not the com­pos­er him­self.

  • Sandra says:

    Con­gr­tat­u­la­tions to you for giv­ing cred­it where it is due. Noth­ing unfor­tu­nate about that!!

  • Derek Williams says:

    Thank you for mak­ing this cor­rec­tion to the cat­a­logue. I hope it finds its way into the oth­er threads mak­ing this claim.

  • John Link says:

    Beau­ti­ful! But why was the final chord cut off?

  • John Link says:

    Thank you for the cor­rec­tion.

  • Lou Raichle says:

    Agree 100% with Mr. Mari­nos above. Suzanne Goden­ne’s “ver­sion” of Clair de Lune is awful — full of “cute” self-serv­ing “look at me” time-warps and just plain show­ing off. If Debussy had heard it, he’d have stran­gled her. The pro­duc­ers of that oth­er­wise fine CD should nev­er have includ­ed it.

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