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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