All about the classic French children’s song “Au clair de la lune”

Au clair de la lune is a popular French children’s song that’s been around since the 18th century, or possibly even longer.  Its title in English is usually translated as “By the Light of the Moon” or “In the Moonlight”.

Au clair de la lune  is often referenced in French popular culture, and is still an extremely popular lullaby for French kids. It was also involved in a historical milestone.  

Let’s learn more about Au clair de la lune!

What are the lyrics to Au Clair de la lune?

A slightly off center image of a full moon shining white against a black, starless sky.

Here are the lyrics to Au Clair de la lune – and an English translation.

Au clair de la lune,
Mon ami Pierrot,
Prête-moi ta plume
Pour écrire un mot.
Ma chandelle est morte,
Je n’ai plus de feu.
Ouvre-moi ta porte
Pour l’amour de Dieu.

(By the light of the moon:
”Pierrot, my friend
Lend me your quill
To write a letter.
My candle is dead,
I have no light left.
Open your door for me
For the love of God.”)

Au clair de la lune,
Pierrot répondit :
<<Je n’ai pas de plume,
Je suis dans mon lit.
Va chez la voisine,
Je crois qu’elle y est,
Car dans sa cuisine
On bat le briquet.>>

(By the light of the moon,
Pierrot replied:
“I don’t have a quill,
I’m in  bed
Go to the neighbor’s,
I think she’s there
Because in her kitchen
Someone’s lighting a fire.”)

Au clair de la lune,
S’en fut Harlequin
Frapper chez la brune,
Elle répond soudain :
–Qui frappe de la sorte?
Il dit à son tour :
–Ouvrez votre porte,
Pour le Dieu d’Amour.

(By the light of the moon
Harlequin went to
Knock on the brunette’s door.
She suddenly responds:
“Who’s knocking like that?”
He replies:
“Open up your door
for the God of Love!”)

Au clair de la lune,
On n’y voit qu’un peu.
On chercha la plume,
On chercha du feu.
En cherchant d’la sorte,
Je n’sais c’qu’on trouva;
Mais je sais qu’la porte
Sur eux se ferma.

(By the light of the moon
you can only see a little.
The pen was searched for,
Light was searched for.
With all that looking
I don’t know what was found,
But I do know that the door
Closed on them.)

These are the lyrics to the most common version of Au clair de la lune that you’ll hear today, but as with just about any old folk song, there are a number of variants.

You can see a few small differences in the lyrics that are posted on the song’s Wikipedia entry. These lyrics were taken from an 1870 version of the song.

You’ll likely come across other versions, too, including some that avoid implying any kind of romantic or sexual act at the end (although these are rare).

How many verses does Au Clair de la lune have?

Overhead image of quill pen that's a true feather, with a pot of blue ink beside it.

As you can see from the previous section of this article, Au Clair de la lune has four verses. Like many popular children’s songs, the first verse is best known and you may hear only that one sung to children at times.

When was Au Clair de la lune written?

No one knows exactly when Au Clair de la lune was written, but based on what limited concrete evidence we have, we know that it became popular in the 18th century. This is often the date that’s given for its writing.

Who wrote Au clair de la lune?

Just as we don’t know exactly when Au clair de la lune was written, we also don’t know who wrote it.

Some people attribute the melody to famous composer Lully, but there’s no definitive proof for this.

Did Debussy write Au clair de la lune?

Famous composer Claude Debussy did not write Au clair de la lune. But one of his best known compositions is Clair de lune (Moonlight), which can be confusing. These two songs are very different, but both are beautiful in their own way.

Adding a bit to the confusion is the fact that while Debussy has nothing to do with Au clair de la lune, he did use its melody in another one of his songs, Pierrot.

Who are the characters in Au Clair de la lune?

The characters who are named in the most common version of Au clair de la lune are Pierrot and Harlequin. There is also a female neighbor.

Pierrot and Harlequin are characters from commedia dell’arte, a type of comedic theater that originated in Italy in the 16th century.

Commedia dell’arte was so popular in previous centuries that many of its standard characters were well-known in popular culture. You could roughly compare them to the way most people today recognize certain superheroes or Harry Potter. Commedia dell’arte characters didn’t have magic or super powers, though. The humorous plays usually deal with mischief or seduction.

Characters appear again and again, and each one has particular characteristics and a distinctive costume. Pierrot and Harlequin are two of the most famous commedia dell’arte characters.

Pierrot is usually a sweet, naive fellow who typically dresses in a big white costume that sometimes has black details (collar, buttons…). Because he often suffers a broken heart in the plays, many portrayals show him with tears on his face.

Harlequin is funny, scheming, and energetic. He usually tries to win the heart (and maybe other things) of the stock character Columbina. He’s sometimes portrayed as Pierrot’s romantic rival. Unlike Pierrot, his traditional costume is made up of squares of lots of different colors.

Although Pierrot doesn’t do much that fits his usual commedia dell’arte characteristics in Au clair de la lune, Harlequin’s personality and typical storylines add a bit more to the song’s double meaning.

Is Au Clair de la lune a sexual song?

A lit candle glows behind the door of a candle holder with a heart-shaped window.

In our modern era, Au clair de la lune is a bit notorious for having a sexual subtext. Phrases like ma chandelle est morte (My candle is dead) and on bat le briquet (someone’s lighting a fire) could be interpreted as simply talking about lighting-related matters, but they could also be interpreted as, respectively, one’s libido or penis, and the act of intercourse.

There are lots of other phrases like this in the song, and the fact that its characters are from the commedia dell’arte, which usually featured comical plays about seduction, only adds to the sexual subtext of the song.

But that said, the song has never been banned or called out by the French public. It’s a classic, and maybe originally the subtext was meant to give tired parents a laugh as they sang their kids to bed. You could think of it the way some cartoons today often insert a bit of adult humor to give an extra chuckle to grown-ups who are watching with their children. These jokes won’t be understood by younger listeners/viewers.

So, despite its known double meaning, Au clair de la lune is perfectly okay to sing to a child and is a beloved family classic in France today.

Is Au Clair de la lune the oldest French song?

Au Clair de la lune is far from the oldest French song – but it IS the song heard in the oldest known recording of a human voice.

Why is Au Clair de la lune important in the history of recorded sound?

A candle holder shaped like a cylinder with cut outs of moons and stars. A lit candle inside makes them glow and project their shapes onto the walls of the dark room around them.

On April 9, 1860, Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville used his invention, the phonautograph, to record someone singing the opening words of Au clair de la lune: “Au clair de la lune, mon ami Pierrot, prête —.”

The phonautograph worked by transcribing sound waves onto a paper cylinder. It was impossible to play these transcriptions back like records. They were used to study sound waves.

But in 2008, a group of American researchers came upon some of the surviving cylinders and tried to see if they could play the sound. Amazingly, they were able to bring back to life a human voice from over a hundred and sixty years ago. These few seconds of a person singing Au clair de la lune make up the oldest known recording we have of the human voice, predating Edison’s phonograph recordings by 17 years!

At first, the researchers played Scott de Martinville’s transcription at a regular speed, and the recording seemed to be of a child or woman singing. But then someone wondered if it should be slowed down. When they did that, the voice sounded more like a man singing instead – probably Scott de Martinville itself.

Listening to it is a haunting and moving experience. I encourage you to take a few seconds to do it.

You can hear the way the recording was originally released to the world (and the way it seems to usually still be featured) on Wikipedia.

If you’re fascinated by the history of sound and want to learn more about the phonautograph, this short YouTube video shows images of the device, and also features a longer recording of what was on the cylinder.

In this video, you can hear the transcription slowed down so that the voice sounds like a man’s voice, rather than a child’s or woman’s.

What’s the best version of Au Clair de la lune?

There are lots of versions of Au Clair de la lune. You can find several by doing a search for the song on YouTube. You’ll see that almost all of these are geared towards children and usually featured animated images.

My family’s personal favorite is this version, which includes pretty humming.

Bonus: Like many other versions you’ll find on YouTube, this one has the lyrics written below the images, making for excellent French listening practice!

Speaking of which, whatever version you choose, as you listen, notice how the silent “e” at the ends of words are emphasized, so that they sound like like “uh”.  This is a common thing for many French singers to do, although these sounds remain silent in regular French speech.

I hope you enjoyed learning about Au clair de lune. The next time you can’t fall asleep, maybe try playing your favorite version of it so that you can drift of to its soothing melody and its story of a clown’s amorous adventure!

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Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg is an American writer, worrier, teacher, and cookie enthusiast who has lived in Paris, France, for more than a decade. She has taught English and French for more than ten years, most notably as an assistante de langue vivante for L'Education Nationale. She recently published her first novel, Hearts at Dawn, a "Beauty and the Beast" retelling that takes place during the 1870 Siege of Paris. You can read about her adventures here, or feel free to stop by her website.