Looney Tunes

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Claude Debussy around 1908.
Claude Debussy around 1908.

I rather like the story about the small child at an elementary school who was asked by her teacher which is more useful, the sun or the moon. After a few moments’ thought the child decided that the moon is more useful, because “it shines during the night when the light is needed and the sun shines during the day when it’s light anyway”.

You’d think that there would be dozens of pieces of music inspired by the moon, but it would seem that over the years, the moon – and the sun, for that matter – has made more of an impression on painters and poets rather than composers. I suppose the first thing people think of is Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata which is unfortunate, because it has nothing to do with the moon. In 1832 the German music critic Ludwig Rellstab remarked that the slow opening movement reminded him of moonlight shining on Lake Lucerne. Within ten years the name “Moonlight Sonata” had caught on, and it’s been used ever since. Beethoven himself never used that title and in any case, the fast and furious finale seems to have been inspired by a force ten hurricane.

One of the first moon-inspired operas was Joseph Haydn’s curious Il mondo della luna written in 1777. A hundred and sixty years later, Carl Orff wrote a one-act opera Der Mond, based on a fairy tale by the Grimm Brothers. Then there’s the 1912 melodrama Pierrot Lunaire (“Moonstruck Pierrot”) by Arnold Schoenberg, as well a few moon-inspired piano pieces and arias that litter the repertoire. The American composer Edward MacDowell wrote a piano solo called To the Moonlight and Leopold Godowsky wrote a sadistically difficult piece for piano entitled Borobudur in Moonlight, referring to the Indonesian temple of the same name.

Claude Debussy (1862-1918): Clair de Lune. Philadelphia Orchestra, cond. Wolfgang Sawallisch (Duration: 05.41; Video: 240p)

Suite Bergamasque is one of the composer’s most well-known piano works, based on poems written by Paul Verlaine, a colourful and ultimately tragic figure part of whose life was immortalized in the 1995 movie Total Eclipse. Debussy started the work in 1890, but it went through several major revisions before publication in 1905. The composer changed the names of at least two of the pieces. Clair de Lune (“Moonlight”) for example, was originally entitled Promenade Sentimentale.

The piece is not particularly easy to play and requires a pretty good technique merely to get the notes in the right order, let alone give them some kind of meaning. Clair de Lune has been orchestrated by several different people including André Caplet, Leopold Stokowski and Dimitri Tiomkin – he of Hollywood fame and best known for his music for westerns. Stokowski’s arrangement is especially effective and this performance was filmed at the Minato-Mirai Hall in Yokohama. The Philadelphia strings are superb and there are some lovely woodwind solos. Listen for a magic moment at 3:45 where the Stokowski arrangement uses the vibraphone to haunting effect. Unfortunately this video is rather low quality, but worth a look for the musical and historical value.

Antonín Dvorak (1841-1904): Song to the Moon from Rusalka. Renée Fleming (sop), BBC Symphony Orch cond. Jiri Belohlavek (Duration 06:54; Video: 420p)

One of the few lunar opera arias is Vaga luna, che inargenti (“Beautiful moon, dappled with silver”) written by the tremendously successful but sadly short-lived Italian composer Vincenzo Bellini. Antonín Dvorak wrote ten operas, and Rusalka is his ninth, a three-act work first performed in Prague in 1901. In Slavic mythology, a rusalka is a water nymph which inhabits lakes and rivers and the most popular aria is Song to the Moon.

In the story, Rusalka has fallen in love with a human prince who often hunts near the lake, presumably for wild animals rather than water nymphs. In a melancholy mood, Rusalka fervently asks the moon to tell the prince of her love. A rather pointless request you might think, but this is the make-believe world of opera and where anything is possible.

In this video, the American soprano Renée Fleming sings the aria in the original Czech but you might be relieved to know, there are subtitles. It is one of the most popular arias ever and this recording was made at London’s Prom Concerts. Renée Fleming gives a moving and beautifully-phrased performance with an impassioned and powerful climax.