It is difficult to establish an appropriate chronological place for Claude Debussy's Suite bergamasque within his output. He originally composed the piece in 1890, but it was not published until 1905, and the extent to which he revised it during the interval is unclear. Certainly the published work is a great stylistic advance over the few short piano works which preceded it during the late 1880s and early 1890s, but whether that advance is due to an early maturity or to much later alteration will perhaps always elude historians.
The Suite, Debussy's tribute to the French Baroque clavecinistes (harpsichordists), comprises four individual movements: Prélude, Menuet, Clair de lune, and Passepied. It is interesting to note that Debussy originally titled the third and fourth pieces "Promenade sentimentale" and "Pavane," respectively, and changed their titles only shortly before publishing the Suite in 1905. This has caused many to question the purported connection between the much-celebrated Clair de lune and Paul Verlaine's poem of the same name. However, Debussy's connection with Verlaine's poetry is far reaching enough for the association to be meaningful. He had already set the poem "Clair de lune," as well as several others, for voice and piano on two separate occasions by 1891, and the word bergamasque is itself contained within that particular text.
The Prelude, an F major piece cast in ternary (ABA) form, unfolds in an aristocratic, unhurried way. The opening declamation, spanning some four octaves, is nobleness itself, while the B section, in A minor, is devoted to more thoughtful ideas. Perhaps the best music in the Prelude is contained within the lengthy passage that connects the middle section to the reprise of the opening. The Menuet presents the best glimpse of Debussy's emerging compositional voice. Save for its 3/4 meter there is little trace of the traditional minuet form to be found. Especially notable is the absence of a trio section. Clair de lune is perhaps the most famous work Debussy ever penned. Although Debussy's reliance on left-hand arpeggios throughout the piece can lead to a somewhat mechanical effect in the hands of less skilled performers, Clair de lune has a way of drawing the listener into its magical atmosphere. Particularly striking are the opening gestures, still and quiet, and a passage in parallel octaves that connects the opening to the more active middle-section. The Passepied that ends the Suite is cast in 4/4 time, betraying its origins as a pavane, since the traditional Passepied is invariably found in 3/4 time. As is the case with the Menuet, Debussy is making reference to an antiquated dance form without actually making use of it.