Claude Debussy: Suite bergamasque


Composed between the years 1890 and 1905, Suite bergamasque has remained one of Claude Debussy’s most popular works for the piano. The suite was heavily revised before its publication in 1905, and many of the names were changed. Debussy used names that came from Paul Verlaine’s poetry. The suite is comprised of four movements, each with a different character. 


The Music
Movement I – Prélude 

Marked moderato tempo rubato, the opening Prélude is set in the bright key of F major. As the hands span across the piano for the opening flourishes, this idea is repeated a number of times throughout this movement. The long and flowing melody is accentuated by the legato markings. The melody is developed through the changing of rhythm, pitch and dynamic. This movement concludes with a reprise of the opening material, this time the hands unite for the final few chords. 


Movement II – Menuet

This peppy Menuet is set in 3/4 and is primarily based around the key of A minor. The rollicking melody paired with the structured and very numerical accompaniment creates a stately dance. Similarly to the opening movement, the Menuet also experiments with dynamics and subtle changes in rhythms. The eerily quiet sections are soon dissolved by huge chordal passages that soon resolve into the sweet opening melody once more.


Movement III – Clair de lune

No doubt the most famous of the suite, Clair de lune is set in Db major. Unlike the previous two movements, and the finale movement, Clair de lune is written in compound time (9/8). The title, meaning ‘moonlight’, and this is reflected in the expressive performance instructions. This serene piece shows Debussy’s sparkling melodic writing, plus his famed complex harmonic language. This piece remains one of the most famous piano works ever written, and is often associated with sleeping, lullabies and relaxation. 


Movement IV – Passepied

The finale movement of Suite bergamasque is set in F# minor and, similarly to the opening movement, is in 4/4 time signature. The title originates from the passepied dance from France. The fastest of the four movements, this light music is different to the atmospheres of the other sections. Throughout the piece the left hand relentlessly plays staccato arpeggios as the right hand plays fragments of the melody as it quickly develops into something new. This final movement concludes with a reprise from the opening melody, slowly getting quieter until the delicate last two chords.


Final Thoughts

Suite bergamasque remains one of Debussy’s most sought-after works. From the serene Clair de lune to the expressive opening movement, the suite comprises some of Debussy’s iconic works. Debussy himself was not the biggest fan of this suite, as it didn’t showcase his more mature style, however this didn’t put off audiences and critics who have always loved it. 


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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