Tag Archives: Debussy

Art under a cloudy sky

Although cloud watching seems to be reaching ever-higher levels of popularity nowadays, this noble activity has been a favorite pastime of sensitive and artistically inclined individuals long before the advent of modern photographic techniques.

In his nocturnal composition Nuages (“Clouds”), Claude Debussy tried to capture “the immutable aspect of the sky and the slow, solemn motion of the clouds, fading away in grey tones lightly tinged with white.

Debussy’s visual, descriptive language brings to mind impressionistic images of similar themes. Conversely, painters would also use music as a way to better illustrate the effects of their own art. In a letter to his brother Theo in 1888, Vincent Van Gogh wrote: “…in a picture I want to say something comforting, in the way that music is comforting.”

Vincent van Gogh, ‘Wheat Field Under Cloudy Sky’ (Oil on canvas, 1890)

A somewhat darker, and at times even disturbing, vision arises in some of Akira Kurosawa’s cinematic masterpieces, such as Rashomon (1950) and Ran (1985). Here, the depiction of imposing cloud formations serves as a symbol for the futility and the ephemeral status of human affairs, signifying the tragic dimensions of man’s passing from this world.

Ran-stills

Stills from Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Ran’ (1985)

In the dedication of Paris Spleen, one of the founding texts of literary modernism, Charles Baudelaire had dreamed “of the miracle of a poetic prose, musical, without rhythm and without rhyme” that could “adapt itself to the lyrical impulses of the soul, the undulations of reverie, the jibes of conscience.”

In the opening piece, L’étranger (“The Stranger”), Baudelaire’s enigmatic figure rejects received truths, certainties and conventions, retaining faith only to one’s self and the beauty of passing clouds…

“Tell me, enigmatical man, whom do you love best, your father, your mother, your sister, or your brother?

I have neither father, nor mother, nor sister, nor brother.

Your friends? Now you use a word whose meaning I have never known.

Your country? I do not know in what latitude it lies.

Beauty? I could indeed lover her, Goddess and Immortal.

Gold? I hate it as you hate God.

Then, what do you love, extraordinary stranger?

I love the clouds… the clouds that pass… up there… up there… the wonderful clouds!”

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Blame it on the moonlight

The moon has been a source of awe and admiration since times immemorial, and the fascination of man by its mysterious nature and changing phases can be shown by the multitude of lunar deities identified in mythological accounts all around the world.

It was the same fascination that would inspire the art of Romanticism, which placed new emphasis on the intense emotions arising from the confrontation with the sublimity of the natural world. Captivating depictions of the moon can be found in several romantic works, as in the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich (1774 – 1840) or the poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792 – 1822).

“Dovedale by Moonlight” (detail), by Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797)

In music, the most popular composition associated with the moon is most probably Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, written in 1801. The composer, however, would never get to know it by this name (its original title is Sonata quasi una fantasia); the nickname ”Moonlight” only came about some five years after Beethoven’s death, thanks to a description by Ludwig Rellstab, a German poet and music critic, who referred to the composition in terms of “a vision of a boat on Lake Lucerne by moonlight.” Even though Beethoven did not necessarily share Rellstab’s vision, the sonata would be thereafter associated with moonlight and its mesmerising first movement would serve as a prototype for many nocturnes during the 19th century.

It was in 1890 that Claude Debussy started to compose his Suite Bergamasque. Its third and most famous movement was inspired by Paul Verlaine’s poem Clair de Lune (French for “moonlight”) and carries the same name. Originally written for the piano, Debussy’s suite has been orchestrated by many composers including André Caplet, Lucien Cailliet (whose arrangement was used in the closing scene of Ocean’s Eleven), and Leopold Stokowski.

Stokowski’s version was actually meant to feature in Disney’s Fantasia, however the scene was eventually deleted due to length limitations.

The mystique and magical quality of moonlight have continued to inspire and fuel artistic creation up to modern times.  One of the most beautiful examples can be found in Paco de Lucía’s album Fuente y Caudal, which brought him international fame. It is the wonderful granaína Reflejo de luna (“reflection of moon”), a true gem that reveals the seemingly limitless capacity of flamenco guitar for expression and color. It is, after all, no accident that the strings of the guitar have been called the “six silver moonbeams”…