Claude Debussy and Madrugada Obscura

Among my favorite classical compositions, “Clair de lune” is the third and penultimate movement in French composer Claude Debussy’s “Suite Bergamasque.” It’s beautiful and delicate but also deeply evocative, which I learned has something to do with its inspiration, a poem by the French poet Paul Verlaine. From Verlaine Debussy borrowed the title of the movement and that of the suite itself.

 

Verlaine, a contemporary of Debussy, belonged to a literary and artistic movement known as symbolism. Symbolists rejected realism, believing that artistic statements ought to be made indirectly. Using metaphor and suggestion, symbolists hoped to imply absolute truths that they believed were impossible to capture in a literal account of reality.

Verlaine’s own “Clair de lune” articulates this attitude well. The title is French for “moonlight,” literally “light of the moon.” Appropriately, moonlight isn’t the moon’s own light, but light perceived because the moon reflects the light of the sun. Illuminated by that indirect light source, Verlaine describes masked figures singing and dancing bergamasque, a dance that William Shakespeare had called “clumsy” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Moonlight

Your soul is a select landscape
Where charming masqueraders and bergamaskers go
Playing the lute and dancing and almost
Sad beneath their fantastic disguises.

All sing in a minor key
Of victorious love and the opportune life,
They do not seem to believe in their happiness
And their song mingles with the moonlight,

With the still moonlight, sad and beautiful,
That sets the birds dreaming in the trees
And the fountains sobbing in ecstasy,
The tall slender fountains among marble statues.

Paul Verlaine, 1869

Verlaine’s poem suggests that these figures don’t believe in their own elation and fantasy, singing triumphant love songs in minor keys, being outwardly happy and festive yet simultaneously deeply sad, illuminated by the solemn glow of the moon.

Verlaine’s poem and Debussy’s piano suite remind me of a lovely and deeply evocative Spanish word. La madrugada translates approximately to “dawn” or “predawn,” but I’m not aware of any English translation that captures what it seems to mean in a single word. As I understand it, la madrugada is that dark, quiet time of night that’s beyond midnight but well before sunrise. Think pitch blackness, but a pitch blackness that hides the dew already collecting on the grass and the birds beginning to sing. In Frank Sinatra’s words, it’s “the wee small hours of the morning.”

Finding an appropriately evocative English equivalent calls to mind the slam poet Rives and his suspicions about 4am, “the one time you’re either up too late or gotten up too early.”

Later than the latest of late night talk shows yet hours ahead of Good Morning America, 4am has become a meme, says Rives, representing the darkest depths of night that exist just before the earliest indications of dawn appear. I think the mysterious 4am hour that he describes can be thought of as la madrugada as it is represented in English-speaking pop culture. (In a way, and in different words, Snoop Dogg took the opportunity in “Gin and Juice” to brag about partying through la madrugada, which I’ll consider a benchmark and threshold for just how gangsta you can really get.)

Fittingly, I’ve chosen to pair Debussy’s “Clair de lune” with a beer brewed by Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales called Madrugada Obscura, which they’ve labelled a “dark dawn stout.” It has some characteristics you’d expect of a barrel-aged stout: roasted malt, oak, coffee, and chocolate bass tones that confirm the darkness the name suggests. However, and with no surprise to anyone familiar with Jolly Pumpkin’s beers, these darker notes give way to a not-so-subtle sourness that suggests tart cherries, lemon, and green apple.

Sour stouts like Madrugada Obscura remain relatively hard to find and were very hard to find until relatively recently when sour beers started to gain popularity in the United States. Sourness has long been present in old world styles; Belgium and parts of Germany are known for their sour beers, and it is believed that beer was historically somewhat tart due to the tendencies of wild fermentation (a brewer’s best option before culturing familiar yeast strains became a feasible practice). Only recently, however, have sour stouts garnered significant interest from the craft beer community. (NB: there are other good examples of this style that are regionally available, some of which I personally prefer to Madrugada Obscura.. The Bruery’s Tart of Darkness is less roasty and more tart, and Birds Fly South’s False Face exhibits a wonderful balance of stout and sour characteristics.)

I think a fair comparison can be made between “Clair de lune” and Madrugada Obscura. Nominally speaking, “Clair de lune” evokes a brightness and serenity, but sonically and contextually carries a dark solemnity that underlies that brightness. Madrugada Obscura does the inverse, evoking a darkness of flavor that it succeeds in providing, but not without a surprising, contrasting, (deliciously) conceptually conflicting brightness and pucker you rightfully wouldn’t anticipate in an imperial stout. In both cases, it’s a beautifully evocative case of darkness among brightness.

I’ve paired this odd duo to reflect two ongoing goals of mine: to explore why we pair things and to expand our understanding of what a good pairing can resemble.

Traditionally speaking, we seem to pair things like food and wine to achieve complementary tasting experiences. We want harmony between one bite and the following sip, which means amplifying desirable qualities without creating or calling attention to undesirable qualities.

I think there’s much more to be said about pairing, and delightfully weirder things at that, especially if we open our minds to more abstract combinations. In pairing food and drinks, we are limited to flavors that cooperate with each other, either in a complementary or a delightfully contrasting way. But, when we expand pairing possibilities, I believe we open up new opportunities for two seemingly unrelated things to teach us about each other. In that sense, I think, the point of a pairing is not just to bring harmony to the palate but also to inform and illuminate.