Debussy’s piano piece “Clair de Lune” illustrates the unique whole tone style of the French composer. The title translate to “moonlight” in French. In music, tone are separated by equally spaced intervals called half steps. Sit at a piano and play all of the white and black keys consecutively to play consecutive half steps. To play whole steps, play every other key. This results in a whole tone scale. Debussy is considered a part of the Impressionist movement in music that was considered a subset of music within the Romantic Period.
This simple piece for piano was started in 1880 and published 15 years later in 1905. However, the composition was significantly revised in 1890 prior to publication. Most likely, Debussy has changed his mind about the style of the piece and wanted to improve it based on his current ability. The composition is the third movement of a larger suite called the “Suite bergamasque.”
The complete set of movements entails four distinct pieces. The first movement includes a piece in the key of F called “Prélude.” This piece is indicative of most preludes and has a festive and energetic feel. The second movement “Menuet” involves two themes that contrast between light and playful and dark and mysterious moods. “Clair de Lune” comes in at the third movement and provides a lilting lyrical contrast to the second movement. Finally, Debussy ends the suite with “Passepied” a fast-paced dance that helps end the suite on a high note.
“Clair de Lune” is tied to the other pieces with a common motive that helps to create a sense of cohesiveness. The motif consists of five notes that move down and up in a twisting motion before descending at the end. In the third movement, the motif consists of a F, E-flat, F, E-flat and down to a D beginning in the fist and second measure. The other movements replicate these intervals on differing pitch levels. For instance, the second movement starts on a G. The first movement starts on F, but instead of moving down a whole step to E-flat, Debussy moves down a half step to E.
Frederic Chopin’s Nocturnes opus 9 consist of three pieces that he completed from 1830 to 1832. Each piece has a distinct sound and form that helps to set them apart from each other. The works are dedicated to Madame Camille Pleyel and were published a year after they were completed in 1833. While the second Nocturne is by far Chopin’s most famous Nocturne, a discussion of the second one by itself would be incomplete without some mention of the other two Nocturne’s in the collection.
Nocturne in B-flat minor, Op. 9, No. 1
The first Nocturne consists of a series sextuplets that ascend and descend against a simple melody that moves in contrast to the rhythm of the bass. These melodies provide a juxtaposition of notes that complete with the triplets and create complex rhythmic ideas. The idea of placing rhythms in contrast to each other was a new concept that didn’t come into place until the Romantic Period in music. Listening to the first movement, the listener has a sense of a free, flowing and exciting adventure that requires a great deal of virtuosity on the part of the pianist. This Nocturne has a simple ABA form to it.
Nocturne in E-flat major, Op. 9, No. 2
The second Nocturne evokes imagery of melancholy isolation and longing. Written when he was only a 20-year-old, the piece has an evocative and romantic feel that expresses a great individualism and creative expression.
The piece uses a rounded binary form and that follows an AABABAC section format. The C section functions as a code to help round off and complete the piece. When played in conjunction with the first Nocturne, the second nocturne holds its place as a more elaborate and complex work. The melody has exciting and graceful leaps that help to accent chords and bring in a sensation of a truly free and complex melody. Again, as per Chopin’s style the third movement has many characteristics of both the first and third Nocturnes. In some ways, the second Nocturne acts a development section for the robust and exciting first Nocturne. The majority of the second Nocturne maintains a passive and somber feel until finally it bursts into an emotional and evocative section that sets the stage for the third Nocturne.
Nocturne in B major, Op. 9, No. 3
The final nocturne reminds the listener of the character of the first nocturne. In this way, it ties together the first and second Nocturnes in a sort of recapitulation. Until this time it is was rare for a composer to work out such an extended set of pieces that work together to form one cohesive whole. The form is a simple ternary form with an ABA form.
For lovers of classical music, nothing can bring more excitement than to see their favorite songs brought to life. The stories behind the music, or just films based on classical pieces, help bring a new awareness of the songs themselves. Over the years a number of great classical songs have been turned into feature films, and peeks into the lives of the composers behind the music have made classical pieces more relevant to audiences.
In 2010, the movie Black Swan opened in theaters with great success. Based on Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, the film was quickly embraced by audiences that were unfamiliar with the composer’s original opera. The film featured a reproduction of Tchaikovsky’s original ballet and brought a new interest to the original production. Although Swan Lake has always been one of the most beloved and well known ballets ever performed, the release of the film helped to bring about a new awareness of the opera’s beauty. In terms of film popularity, no composer is more portrayed than Beethoven. A large number of films have been done based on his life and classical compositions. The film Copying Beethoven from 2006, gave a fictitious portrayal of the last three years of Beethoven’s life, including the composition of his Ninth Symphony piece. There is no way to fully know if the movies portrayal of Beethoven’s final years are even remotely accurate, but the movie is entertaining none the less and features many of the composer’s most popular compositions. Taking a different view of the composer’s life is the film Immortal Beloved from 1994. While most films about the composer show him as a musical genius, this film portrayed him as an ordinary man. The audience is drawn to Beethoven even more because he’s finally shown in a way that his fans can relate to. His music wasn’t featured heavily in this film, but the movie did give fans a possible view of why his music moves us so much. Finally, one of the best films based on the true story of Beethoven’s life is Beethoven Lives Upstairs from 1992. This film balances both the life and music of the composer very well, unlike most other films about his life. The film was received so well, that a CD of Beethoven’s most noted works was created to accompany it, so fans are truly treated to a bonus. It has even gone on to be used in music lessons throughout both Canada and the United States, as a popular way to introduce elementary students to classical music.
There are literally thousands of films based on classical music all over the world, but no list could be complete without including Disney’s 1940 masterpiece Fantasia. Technically speaking this is an animated film, but the music is set for adults as well as children. The whole movie revolves around the use of different classical pieces to set different moods and help move the story along. The film features no dialogue at all, so it relies completely on the music to set the stage. Made up of many short film segments, each portion of the movie features a different classical piece to tell the story. The classical music for this film include many great works by well known composers. The list includes:
Toccata and Fugue in D Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach
Nutcracker Suite by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Dukas
Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky
The Pastoral Symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven
Dance of the Hours by Amilcare Ponchielli
Night on Bald Mountain by Modest Mussorgsky
Ave Maria by Franz Schubert
Although the film almost sent Disney into bankruptcy after it’s release, it later rose to greater popularity in the 60s and again in 2000 with the release of Fantasia 2000. Today it is considered to be a Disney classic, and is beloved by both children and adults.