Most of the recorded versions of Clair de Lune seem to hover around the 60 crotchet beats per minute mark. Some are slower still, and some have enormous amounts of rubato as well as gaps between phrases or sections. One or two renditions are so syrupy that one wonders whether the performers even noticed the quasi allegretto instruction, let alone the printed metronome mark of 78 bpm. Yet none of these variations or slackenings of tempi are marked in the score. There is not a single printed rallentando or ritardando, and no change of speed is indicated for the "moonlit" section of pedalled arpeggios. Furthermore, only sparing amounts of sustaining pedal are marked, in contrast to the blanket coverage one frequently hears.
It is all very well to perform instinctively by feel, but if there is no attempt to discover what makes a composer tick (metaphorically and metronomically), there is a risk not only of misleading one's audience but also of perpetuating such false representations to future generations of performers. Fauré's Clair de lune is not at all the same kind of piece as Debussy's setting of the same poem (even less his famous piano arabesque of that name). Fauré prefers in this song to pick out the baroque elements of the scene rather than dwell on the impressionistic moonlight (whose short appearance is made all the more magical). The subtitle of the song, "Menuet", gives us the clue, as do the lutes played by the musicians in the poem and featured in the Watteau paintings to which the poem refers. The strummed arpeggiated chords don't sound lute-like if taken too slow, and the elegant upward scale at "déguisements fantasques" sounds ponderous and contrived if it is not allowed to be tossed up into the air with a flick of the hand. Fauré's music always has energy, forward momentum and drive. It should not sound mechanical, but nor should it ever overindulge or wallow.
Playfulness characterizes much of Fauré's music. Here he finds a way of being wistful and playful at the same time, thus capturing the subtle threads of irony that run through the verse. Why otherwise would he have switched temporarily, but very deliberately, to a major key for the words "mode mineur" ? The poem and the music are studies in the contradictions of life, exposing a world of subterfuge and etiquette in which figures act out stylized moves, conceal their inner selves behind masks and disguise their outer selves in fanciful costumes. The somewhat sardonic humour is lost if the pointed gaiety of the dance steps is slowed to such an extent that they fade into the background colourwash.
My instinct for a faster tempo is borne out by Graham Johnson in his book Gabriel Fauré: The Songs and their Poets. He says that Fauré's suggested speeds should at the very least be tried out before being discarded. The metronome marks given for songs were chosen by Fauré himself, not his editors. Sometimes he had second thoughts and a different mark appears in a later edition, but in the case of Clair de lune, 78 is the only marking given. But whatever tempo is settled on, it must, says Johnson, "be scrupulously adhered to".
Claire Croiza was a soprano who worked extensively with Fauré and knew at first hand how he liked his music to be played. She recounts how Fauré disliked indulgent performances of his songs. Johnson states that her own 1927 performance of Clair de lune starts at 82 bpm, eventually to settle at 72, in spite of her insistence on fidelity to the metronomic indications. The variation in speed may of course be the fault of the accompanist; the performance is not on YouTube and I haven't heard it, but Johnson writes: "Her whole performance eschews the soothingly exquisite in favour of a rueful sense of ennui — something that is certainly at the heart of Verlaine's Fêtes galantes poems."
According to Croiza:
Fauré was a metronome incarnate. And more particularly so at the end of his life when he became deaf. Before that he was 'galant', he liked attractive women and used to make concessions. But at the end of his life, when he could no longer hear, he went his own way regardless, not noticing that the singer was sometimes two or three bars behind him ... because she slowed down while he kept strict tempo. (quoted by Jeffrey Dane in Gabriel Fauré, A Man of Musical Elegance)
and elsewhere she says:
Fauré was a walking metronome ... Above all it is slowing him down that distorts him. Fauré had a drive that bore no relation either to expression or shading. (quoted in Johnson, page 390)
In masterclasses on Fauré, Croiza made the following observations, the first of which (in bold face) was said in specific reference to Clair de lune (all quoted in Johnson, pages 390–391):
Fauré must be practised with the metronome: it is what he would have wanted — an absolute fidelity to the indicated marking.
In our modern French music what is needed is a pitiless beat with a rhythm that never changes ... In French music one must sing to the metronome and never change anything further. Debussy, Duparc, the same thing with a few little rallentandi. Nevertheless Duparc said to me one day "If I had known what singers would make of them, I would never have put in these rallentandi".
The modern French masters, coming after an epoch where everything had been permitted to interpreters have, as a reaction, become distrustful of the interpretation of the singers. They have indicated all that should be done: nuance, tempo, time signature, it is not permitted to deviate from what has been written ... The interpreter is there to serve the musician as he wishes to be served.
These remarks are significant and important. It is this attention to the written score that makes his music speak. Well, here is my illustrated karaoke version, with apologies for my pianistic deficiencies.