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  • Writer's picturePeter VanderPoel


One of my favorite pieces of music is Clair de Lune (Moonlight), by Claude Debussy. Below is a link to an audio file.

Until recently, I didn't know that Debussy’s Clair de Lune was inspired by a Paul Verlaine poem. Here's the text in the original French and an English translation:

Clair de Lune

by Paul Verlaine

Votre âme est un paysage choisi

Que vont charmants masques et bergamasques

Jouant de luth et dansant et quasi

Triste sous leurs déguisements fantasques.

tout en chantant sure le mode mineur

L’amour vainqueur et la vie opportune,

Ils n’ont pas l’air de croire à leur bonheur

Et leur chanson se mêle au claire de lune,

Au calme clair de lune triste et beau,

Qui fait rêver les oiseaux dans les arbres

Et sangolter d’extase les jets d’eau,

Les grands jets d’eau sveltes parti les marbres.


Your soul is like a select landscape

Which goes charmingly masked and bergamasqued

Playing the lute and dancing and

Melancholy under their splendid disguises

All the while singing in a minor key

of conquering love and an opportune life

They can't believe in their good fortune

and their song mingles with the moonlight

The calm moonlight, sad and beautiful,

Which makes the birds dream in the trees

and sobs of ecstasy in the jets of water

The grand jets of slender water amongst the marbles.

Translation - PV

And here's how Disney saw it, in a scene cut from Fantasia.

Artists can reinterpret another's work. One sign of success is whether the referring artist can ignite the emotion that the first artist intended, but through a different medium as Verlaine, Debussy and Disney have done. The thrill of darkenss and water are still effective today as can be heard in much of Bruce Springsteen's work.

Verlaine was a Symbolist poet, a movement that appeared in Fin-de-Siécle Paris. He turned up in a painting by Henri Fantin Letour along with Arthur Rimbaud ( whom he later wounded in a shooting incident). Rimbaud wrote his most famous work, Une Saison en Enfer (A Season in Hell) indirectly about his relationship with Verlaine. All these emotions were bubbling in the Parisian café scene, expressed in words, paint and music.

All artists have to contend with an audience of humans. The artist's own insights into human emotion are on display in their work, in hopes of inspiring igniting a feeling in the viewer. In his book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, the author John Lehrer identifies artists whose insights into human cognition preceded scientists who were struggling to understand the same thing through science alone. Proust delved into memory and Cezanne cognition. The composer Igor Stravinsky got the riot (literally) he had envisioned at the Paris premiere of his Rites of Spring.

The artist delivers a conversation piece to the audience where reflection, critiques and responses are the necessary discussion that guides a culture with each work helping to better define what we see in the mirror.

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