Shedding Light On Clair de Lune

Gurminder Kaur Bhogal

Photo by Richard Howard

Gurminder Kaur Bhogal, Catherine Mills Davis Associate Professor of Music, has been teaching at Wellesley since 2006. Her book, Claude Debussy’s Clair de Lune (Oxford University Press), was published this summer. We spoke with Bhogal about her fascination with the piece and the pleasures of teaching music at Wellesley.

This is the first full book ever on Clair de Lune, which may be Debussy’s most recognizable piece. What drew you to it?

I was asked to write something, anything, on French piano music. Within a split second I said, “It has to be Clair de Lune.” My editor said, “But you can’t write a whole book on it, can you?” “Oh, yes,” I said. I’m not only contextualizing it historically and in relation to French poetry and French art, but also in relation to pop culture. It has been used in film and video games.

I think most pianists discover Clair de Lune at some point because it’s not a very difficult piece to play, although it’s a difficult piece to play well. It was as a young pianist that I discovered it. It’s got all the things that you enjoy as a pianist. It’s got little soft bits in thirds, and it’s got these beautiful, floaty arpeggios. It makes you feel like you’re really making music.

Is Wellesley a congenial place to teach music?

I’ve really enjoyed working with the students. That’s the reason I’m here, more than anything. I love their curiosity. When I say, “OK, we’re going to listen really closely,” they say, “OK, let’s do it.” They’re really up for the challenge. You know, listening to music is something everybody does, but when you say we’re going to really listen, that’s a whole other thing. I wish people would stop thinking about music as an elite thing that only certain people have access to. In the department, we try to teach it in a way that welcomes everyone. Even if you don’t have a background, you should be able to walk into almost any class. We’re there to help you discover music.

What’s an early memory of hearing music in your own life?

It was definitely not French piano music! I was in the U.K., so it was disco, and a lot of David Bowie. You know—the British pop scene. It was very late that I discovered classical music. I must have been about 10, and it was Beethoven.

What are you reading these days?

The last decade or so has seen a real growth in scholarly literature on video game music. So I have been eating up all these books on it. You know, I played these things as a kid, and I’m discovering all these wonderful ways scholars are now engaging with its blips and bloops.

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