The Suite bergamasque (French pronunciation: [sɥit bɛʁɡamask]) is one of the most famous piano suites by Claude Debussy. It was first composed by Debussy around 1890, at the age of 28, but was significantly revised just before its publication in 1905.
It seems that by the time a publisher came to Debussy in order to cash in on his fame and have these pieces published, the composer loathed their earlier piano style. While it is not known how much of the Suite was written in 1890 and how much was written in 1905, it is clear that Debussy changed the names of at least two of the pieces. "Passepied" had first been composed under the name "Pavane", while "Clair de lune" was originally titled "Promenade sentimentale." These names also come from Paul Verlaine's poems. The final title of Suite bergamasque comes from Verlaine's poem Clair de lune, which refers to 'bergamasques' in its opening stanza: Votre âme est un paysage choisi / Que vont charmant masques et bergamasques / Jouant du luth et dansant et quasi / Tristes sous leurs déguisements fantasques.
The Suite bergamasque consists of four movements:
- "Clair de lune"
The first three movements include a common motif:
- "Prélude": F – E – F – E – D (bar 11)
- "Menuet": G – F – G – F – E (bar 6)
- "Clair de lune": F – E♭ – F – E♭ – D♭ (bars 1–2)
The first piece in the suite is entitled "Prélude," in the key of F and marked tempo rubato. It is full of dynamic contrasts with a vigorous beginning and ending. It is a festive piece, which holds much of the Baroque style that is commonly found in preludes.
The second part of the Suite bergamasque is the "Menuet", in A minor. Its playful main theme contrasts with an alternatively mysterious and dramatic middle section. This piece is particularly original, as it does not conform to the particular style that most minuets share. Rather than being very airy and dainty, it shows much more raw comedy. Again, Debussy sets a very novel piece in the guise of an old dance style.
"Clair de lune"
The third and most famous movement of Suite bergamasque is "Clair de lune", in D-flat major. Its name comes from Verlaine's poem Clair de lune, "moonlight" in French. It is written in the 9
8 meter, marked andante très expressif, and to be played mostly pianissimo. Musically, Debussy's "Clair de lune" belongs to French Impressionism.
The final movement is "Passepied" in F-sharp minor, allegretto ma non troppo. A passepied is a type of dance, which originated in Brittany. Debussy's "Passepied" is a happy, strangely medieval piece, which is surprisingly faster than its Baroque counterparts. Throughout most of its duration, the piece is played with staccato arpeggios in the left hand.
Suite bergamasque has been orchestrated by many conductors, including André Caplet, Leopold Stokowski, and Lucien Cailliet.
"Clair de lune" in particular has been arranged for a wide variety of instrumental combinations. One such is Dimitri Tiomkin's arrangement for organ in the score for the 1956 film Giant.
"Passepied" has been arranged by the Punch Brothers for bluegrass instrumentation in their album The Phosphorescent Blues.