Gabriel Faure’s Style: “Clair de Lune” as a Link between Romanticism and Impressionism

Performance of Faure’s “Claire de Lune”

Performance of Debussy’s “Clair de Lune”

Gabriel Faure, despite his French heritage, is not easily placed within that musical tradition, because he embodied a unique synthesis of a number of different compositional techniques and influences. For this reason, Faure is often overlooked, despite his having cultivated a sonority of “timelessness, idealism and depth” according to scholar Robert Orledge, which is unique to his position between compositional schools. Gabriel Faure’s place as a bridge between Romanticism and Impressionism influenced his use of harmony, melody, form and text in his setting of Clair de Lune Op. 46, No. 2, as well as distinguished his compositional style from those of other French composers in the late-nineteenth century. As such, Faure’s approach to harmony, melody, form and text can be characterized in both Romantic and Impressionistic terms. This distinction can be further discerned through a comparison to other French compositions of the same period, as well as to Claude Debussy’s piano work from Suite Bergamasque based on the same poem.

Gabriel Faure was, in part, influenced by the movement toward Romanticism that had begun around the nineteenth century, before he was born.  Romanticism emerged as a result of a society that was developing rapidly. Some of these changes were driven around science and the vast movement of people to cities.  In reaction to changes in society, Romantics sought to express themselves through the supernatural, irrational and subjective. Many artists valued the individual and self-expression through their work. Romanticism found avenues for expressing the intense emotions and is considered more personal in this way, particularly in comparison to the Classical period which sought an objective, broadly reaching form of expression. Romantic ideals affected art and literature as well as music, as can be seen in the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich and the literature of William Wordsworth. However, many Romantics considered the ideal Romantic art form to be instrumental music, because it was able to best evoke specific thoughts and feelings.[1] While Gabriel Faure is not characterized as a Romantic composer and he falls at the end of this movement, influence of these ideals are seen in his musical works.

While Faure was partially influenced by Romantic ideals, he was also composing at the outset of another intellectual movement: Impressionism. In the late nineteenth century, poets and artists wanted to suggest feelings and states of being as opposed to describing them precisely. The Impressionistic painting of artists like Claude Monet captured atmosphere and impressions rather than an exact feeling; this created a detached engagement in emotion. The viewer was then required to actively participate in the interpretation and understanding of the work.[2] These ideals were also pursued in music, as some composers attempted to evoke a mood or atmosphere. Impressionism in music is portrayed through aspects such as disrupted syntax or harmonies and instrumentation that evoke moods.[3] Gabriel Faure composed in France around the time of this movement and listeners are therefore able to hear influences of it in his compositions, such as his vocal literature like Clair de Lune.

Faure composed Claire de Lune in 1887, during a bleak and transitional period in his life. Around the age of forty, a few years prior to the composition of this song, Faure broke off his engagement with Marianne Viardot. In addition, Faure’s father died in 1885, another dark moment for the composer.[4] These events were some that forced Faure to experience years of depression of a sort that caused him head-pains, dizziness and made him often on point of nervous collapse. However, in 1887, Faure discovered Paul Verlaine’s poetry and would soon be encouraged by this and by Princesse de Scey-Montbeliard to become restored in health and spirits.[5] It was amidst this context that Clair de Lune was conceived. Many of Faure’s works were premiered at the Société Nationale de Musique, which allowed him to regularly present his works to the public. Clair de Lune was first performed at the society by amateur tenor Maurice Bagès, in an unrecorded year.[6] The Société Nationale de Musique was an important part of the premier of this piece because it suggested Faure’s attempts to promote the works of French composers and to be considered characteristically “French”.

In addition to analyzing the historical context in which Claire de Lune was written, it is equally important to understand the background of the poet Paul Verlaine and his relationship to Faure. Verlaine was a poet of the symbolist literary movement. He sought to use intense imagery and disrupted syntax in order to suggest experiences rather than note them directly. The focus he placed on the senses fit well into the ideals of the Impressionist movement, which also valued restrained expressions of emotion. Verlaine’s poetry primarily displayed atmosphere which allowed Faure to create atmosphere and mood in his poems that were not restricted by precise images. Paul Verlaine’s symbolist writing style was later reflected in Faure’s compositional techniques.

Verlaine’s poetry represented Symbolism, which is shown through textual analysis of his poem Clair de Lune. The poem is from the poet’s collection Fêtes Galantes, roughly translated as Gallant Festivals. These poems were inspired by Jean-Antoine Watteu’s paintings of eighteenth-century nobility.[7] The men and women in the paintings (who are then portrayed in the poem) are elegant and regal and are playing games and dancing. However, the poem suggests that beneath the guise of grandeur, the characters are melancholy. The second stanza begins “Tout en chantant sur le mode mineur, L’amour vainqueur et la vie opportune”, stating that they sing of life’s happiness.[8] However, the next line, “Ils n’ont pas l’air de croire à leur bonnheur”, reminds the reader that despite their singing, the characters “don’t seem to believe in their own happiness”. The poem closes by describing the sadness of the moonlight under which the scene unfolds, but suggests that it is also beautiful and powerful.[9]Clair de Lune uses specific events of visual imagery and metaphorical language to create a dream-like mood. 

The text and translation of Claire de Lune follows:

Votre âme est un paysage choisi (A)

Your soul is a countryside chosen,

Que vont charmants masques et bergamasques (B)

Where go charmingly (masqueraders) and bergamasks

Jouant du luth dansant, (C)

Playing on the lute and dancing,

Et quasi tristes sous leurs déguisements fantasques ! (B)

And half sad underneath their disguises fantastic!

Tout en chantant, sur le mode mineur, (D)

All while singing, in the mode minor,

L’amour vainqueur et la vie opportune, (E)

Love [as] victor and the life opportunistic

Ils n’ont pas l’air de croire à leur bonheur, (D)

They don’t have the air of believing in their happiness,

Et leur chanson se mêle au clair de lune ! (E)

And their song [itself] mixes with the moonlight !

Au calme clair de lune, triste et beau, (F)

With the calm moonlight, sad and beautiful,

Qui fait rêver les oiseaux dans les arbres, (G)

Which makes dream the birds in the tree,

Et sangloter d’extase les jets d’eau, (F)

And sob with ecstasy the jets of water,

Les grands jets d’eau sveltes parmi les marbres ! (G)

The great fountains narrow among the marble (statues) ![9]

The text of this poem is characterized by its ability to fit within both Romantic and Impressionistic guidelines. It is Impressionistic in the sense that it develops a scene as the primary function. This scene is characteristically detached and describes the events from afar. A sense of the tone of the poem is found in descriptions of the moonlight throughout the poem: “et leur chanson se mêle au clair de lune” and “au calm clair de lune, triste et beau”.[10] These depictions describe how the moonlight is mixed with the song they are playing and how it is calm, sad and beautiful. Verlaine uses imagery that is vague enough to allow an entire scene to be represented, which in turn evokes a mood.  

Clair de Lune both points to a vague sense of detached emotion and pinpoints clearly articulated emotions, representing its place between the schools. This dissonance creates conflict in how the poem should be interpreted. It suggests a very dark emotional state, where the characters are surrounded by gaiety but unable to see it. Further, the emotionally disconnected and Impressionistic moonlight is the cause of the most dramatic and deeply felt emotion in the song in the third stanza: “et sangloter d’extase les jets d’eau”. This line tells the readers that the moonlight causes the jets of water to “sob with ecstasy”, an emotionally compelling part of the poem. Lastly, the poem has references nature, which is a defining Romantic-Era characteristic. It is set in the countryside, speaks of birds in the trees and the moonlight. In these ways, the poem is representative of the Romantic Era of music.

The musical setting of the text is an indication of Faure’s placement within the Impressionist tradition. Verliane’s poetry utilized disrupted syntax and went against the realism of words in order to suggest meaning. In Faure’s setting of the poem, there is no differentiation between syllables, meaning that no syllables are stronger or weaker than others. According to Robert Gartside, a sense of emotional reservation and calm is allowed by this setting of the words and the lack of accents on particular words. In measure 54, the voice hits the highest note of the phrase on the second syllable of “parmi”. It would be easy to sing the second syllable more strongly, however it is meant to be sung without this type of accenting. Gartside suggests that Faure’s text setting would have incorporated the placement of important syllables on strong beats and at important parts of a phrase if he had meant there to by any sort of textual accenting.[11] The reserved setting of the words contributes to the Impressionistic sense of Clair de Lune.

While Faure’s use of text in the piece is an important indication of the composer’s influences when writing it, the harmonic structure is also revealing. For the most part, Faure’s use of harmony suggests that he was heavily influenced by the Romantic period, but the listener will hear a few instances of harmony that seem Impressionistic in quality. The majority of the piece follows triadic harmony; it begins in B flat minor, eventually transitions to F Major and concludes on B flat minor. This relatively simple harmonic outline indicates that he had not quite moved into some of the more radical uses of harmony that Impressionism brought about. For many Impressionists, major and minor harmony had been utterly exhausted. Faure, however, has not abandoned functional harmony entirely and uses this large harmonic structure to organize the piece. Despite Faure’s heavy reliance on functional harmony, there are moments that suggest the composer wanted to abandon functionality. There are moments of harmonic material and certain chords that are taken from the melodic minor scale. The use of the melodic minor scale gives these places a modal and antique “feel”.[12] Additionally, in measures 39 to 49, there is some non-functional harmony that suggests Impressionistic influence. These measures alternate between chords that do not serve a clear harmonic purpose in the phrase. His use of harmony promotes a ‘color’ of sound.  Harmonies that depart from typical usage point to Faure’s acceptance of some of the pillars of Impressionistic music. However, Faure generally stays within Romantic harmonies that use dissonance as mainly a tool for expression. Faure took a unique approach to harmony but his use of melodic figures is also revealing.

Faure’s use of melody in Clair de Lune is representative of his position between compositional schools. Faure uses melody and thematic material to add unity and clarity to his piece. This is characteristic of the Romantic period, where thematic unity was popular. The piano accompaniment provides much of the thematic material in this piece. In the introduction, two recurring themes are presented, in measures 1-2 as well as in measures 5-7.

Mm. 1-2:

faure 3

Mm. 5-7:

faure 2faure

The motives come back later in the piece as an exact repetition of the material, melodically similar, transposed or with the same rhythmic pattern. In the Impressionist period, it would have been more likely to see phrases that were fragmented or overlapping and not necessarily developed in this way. However, the melodies characterize Impressionism by their subdued quality. Romantic-Era melodies are often thought of as melodies with wide ranges that come to great climaxes. Particularly in the vocal line, the melodies in Clair de Lune do not come to dramatic ends and do not embody a vast range. The vocal melody is additionally through-composed, which contrasts some of the thematic unity found in the piano. Melody in this piece seems Impressionistic in its restrained melodies, however, the development and repetition of melodic ideas suggests Romanticism.

Clair de Lune is further characterized by its form. The Romantic era pursued extremes; works were often either very small or very large. Pieces often followed traditional forms that had not been abandoned from the Classical Period, such as sonata or concerto. Impressionism brought about a departure from many of these customary forms and emphasis on smaller works, like the song. Clair de Lune is a small, through-composed piece that seems to embody this Impressionistic departure from standard forms. Themes are present, and they are able to create a sense of structure to the song, but it does not strongly resemble any traditional form.  This piece fits within the repertory of small piano works and songs written by Impressionist composers. In terms of form, Clair de Lune embodies Impressionism richly.

Claude Debussy is often known as the quintessential Impressionist composer. His approach to the setting of Verlaine’s Clair de Lune was entirely different than Faure’s and can more be more thoroughly classified as Impressionistic. Debussy’s Claire de Lune from Suite Bergamasque came in 1882, before Faure’s, and was written for his mistress Marie-Blanche Vansier.[13] Besides using five sharps, as opposed to Faure’s five flats, Debussy’s setting makes greater use of chromaticism, modal colors and the characteristic Impressionistic emotional detachment. Debussy uses chromaticism much more regularly in his piece; one finds frequent augmented chords and chords with added 9ths. It is sometimes difficult to discern key areas and the tonal areas are ambiguous until tonic is reached at the end of the piece. He thought that pleasure in the moment was the key and therefore relied less on the tension and release of harmonically functional chords. Debussy used an ABA structure to organize Clair de Lune. The composer’s adherence to a classical form suggests that, despite his innovative use of harmony, a simple form would make the piece more listener-friendly. Debussy embodied Impressionism fully, and his setting of Paul Verlaine’s poem Clair de Lune is quite different than that of Faure’s and exemplifies their individual styles. Faure had a conservative treatment of the ideas of Impressionism, and in many ways was still largely influenced by Romanticism. Contrarily, Debussy embraced the ideals of Impressionism in music, and he is known under those terms today.

Gabriel Faure’s song Clair de Lune for voice and piano was a synthesis of Romanticism and Impressionism amidst the French tradition. For many, this piece is the archetypal French song, representing an entire nation’s approach to composition. The text of Paul Verlaine’s poem is illustrative of the movement toward symbolism, which is expressed by Faure in an Impressionistic style. The harmonic structure and use of melody in the piece incurs influences from both movements. Finally, it follows a form likely to be found in Impressionism. Debussy used the same poem to create a setting of Clair de Lune that was entirely different than Faure’s and was representative of his true place within Impressionism. The styles and compositional techniques of these composers are a product of expansive influences. Therefore, it can be problematic to attempt to assign a composer a position within one or two schools. It is important to recognize that composers create as a result of the whole of their life experiences and that Faure, though sometimes forgotten, is an important part of the developing tradition of music history.

[1] Rey Longyear, Nineteenth-Century Romanticism in Music (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1973), 20-25.

[2] Christopher Palmer, Impressionism In Music (London : Hutchinson, 1973), 105-107.

[3] Jean- Michel Nectoux, “Faure, Gabriel (Urbain).” Oxford Music Online. Oxford UP, 31 Oct. 2001. Web. 20 Feb. 2014. 

[4] Robert Orledge, Gabriel Faure (London: Eulenburg Books, 1979), 14-18.

[5] Robert Orledge, Gabriel Faure (London: Eulenburg Books, 1979), 14-18.

[6] Graham Johnson, Gabriel Faure: The Songs and their Poets (London:Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2009), 198-201.

[7] Robert Gartside, Interpreting the Songs of Gabriel Faure (Geneseo, New York: Leyerle Publications, 1996), 138-140.

[8] Gartside, Interpreting the Songs of Gabriel Faure, 138-140. The quote translates to “All sing in a minor key, of victorious love and the opportune life”.

[9] Gartside,  Interpreting the Songs of Gabriel Faure, 138-140.

[10] Gartside, Interpreting the Songs of Gabriel Faure, 138-140.

[11] Gartside, Interpreting the Songs of Gabriel Faure, 139.

[12] Gartside, Interpreting the Songs of Gabriel Faure, 140.

[13] Johnson, Gabriel Faure: The Songs and their Poets, 198.



Gartside, Robert. Interpreting the Songs of Gabriel Faure. Geneseo, New York:

         Leyerle  Publications, 1996.

 Johnson, Graham. Gabriel Faure: The Songs and their Poets. London:Ashgate Publishing

        Limited, 2009.

 Longyear, Rey. Nineteenth-century Romanticism in Music.Englewood Cliffs, N.J.:

       Prentice-Hall, 1973.

 Nectoux, Jean- Michel. “Faure, Gabriel (Urbain).” Oxford Music Online. Oxford UP, 31  

       Oct. 2001. Web. 20 Feb. 2014.



 Orledge, Robert. Gabriel Faure. London: Eulenburg Books, 1979.

 Palmer, Christopher. Impressionism in Music. London : Hutchinson, 1973.