Hyperion Records

Clairs de lune
An epigraph from the writer Louis de Lutèce sets the scene, with its white moon gliding silently in space, its motionless ghosts, pale luminescences, mysterious shadows, the carcass of a yowling cat …. This is the world of Edgar Allan Poe, whose writings, translated by Baudelaire and Mallarmé, were the (masochistic) bedside reading of many a French artist of the fin-de-siècle, including Gide, Debussy and Ravel: Aloysius Bertrand’s Gaspard de la nuit belongs to the same company. Even Debussy ultimately found the task of setting The Fall of the House of Usher beyond him, but Decaux’s more limited ambition succeeded most remarkably in bringing to life this world beyond what we call reality.

He wrote the pieces between 1900 and 1907, but they were not published until 1913. Whatever the reason for the delay (perhaps no other publisher would take them seriously?), Decaux’s teacher Massenet died in 1912 and so was spared what would surely have been a rude shock, not so much at the technique—as Richard Taruskin has pointed out, everything stems from the two falling bell motives at the outset (major second, major third; minor second, minor third)—as at the extraordinary harmonies and the no less extraordinary syntax. Whole tone aggregations (as at the beginning of ‘La ruelle’) and consecutive fifths were nothing so out-of-the-way around 1900, but some of Decaux’s chords seem to have been taken from a source such as the songs in Schoenberg’s Das Buch der hängenden Gärten; the only problem being that these weren’t written until 1909. Throughout, major and minor triads are scrupulously avoided or else, as in ‘La mer’, coloured persistently with a sharpened fourth. Again, this piece was written in December 1903, nearly two years before the premiere of Debussy’s La mer and six years before his similarly wild Prélude ‘Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest’.

Detailed analysis of these strange pieces goes against their grain. Better simply to submit ourselves to what Messiaen, in the title to one of his own piano pieces, was to call ‘les sons impalpables du rêve’—‘the impalpable sounds of the dream’.

from notes by Roger Nichols © 2006

Track-specific metadata
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Details for CDA67513 track 8
La mer
Recording date
15 December 2005
Recording venue
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Andrew Keener
Recording engineer
Simon Eadon
Hyperion usage
  1. Dukas: Piano Sonata; Decaux: Clairs de Lune (CDA67513)
    Disc 1 Track 8
    Release date: May 2006
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