Claude Debussy (1862 — 1918): La Mer
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon; 4 horns, 5 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba; timpani, tam tam, triangle, crash cymbals, suspended cymbal, bass drum, glockenspiel, harpsichord; strings
Performance time: 22 minutes
Claude Debussy is widely regarded as "the father of musical Impressionism," but what does that phrase really mean? By now we are comfortable viewing the paintings of Renoir, Monet and their colleagues, and their works have gained such widespread popularity that we must remind ourselves how Impressionist paintings shocked the eye back in the 1870s: The colors seemed strangely bright, the shadowy neutrals were gone, and the paintings rendered impressions of light rather than the world of objects in space. Yet somehow that world materializes before us as we simply relax and look.
In Debussy's music, he showed us how evocations of mood and atmosphere could function as light does in Impressionist paintings. His instrumental color, texture and meandering harmonies ignore traditional combinations. Where Impressionist paintings leave the world of objects behind, Impressionist music goes beyond earlier conventions of harmonic and rhythmic development, moving from one bar to the next in a spontaneous, organic flow. That said, Impressionist music continues to challenge us as listeners a bit more than Impressionist painting does. If we are less comfortable with Debussy and Ravel than with Renoir and Monet, that may not be such a bad thing; as the art critic Sister Wendy Beckett reminds us, the trick is to come to each work of art as something new, approaching it with courage and without preconceptions, opening ourselves to the experience it offers.
Debussy was influenced in his explorations by writers of his day — particularly the revolutionary poet Stéphane Mallarmé and the Belgian symbolist playwright Maurice Maeterlinck — as well as by the chromaticism of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. Is there a composer more closely associated with water, or more vivid in describing it, than Claude Debussy? Like Benjamin Britten in his operas, Debussy returned to the sea again and again in songs and descriptive works for orchestra. "I love the sea and I have listened to it passionately," he wrote. And as he confessed to his friend and fellow-composer André Messager, "You may not have known that I was destined for a sailor’s life, and it was only by chance that fate led me in another direction. Yet I have always felt a passionate love for the sea…"
Indeed, there is probably no composer more closely associated with water, or more expressive in describing it, than Debussy. Like Benjamin Britten in his operas, Debussy returned to the sea again and again in songs and orchestral works. But it turns out that Debussy's experience of the sea — so poetically infused with impressionistic color, light and rhythmic sway — was a triumph of his imagination over reality; the composer's experience of life on the water was limited to "two [English] Channel crossings and some seaside holidays," musicologist Richard Freed informs us. Debussy took one of those seaside holidays at the English Channel town of Eastbourne in 1905, two years after he began sketching La Mer, specifically to complete the work at the seaside.
What to Listen For
Though Debussy never completed a symphony, La Mer challenges every section of the orchestra and is certainly symphonic in its scope. And, as with a symphony, its three movements are intended to be performed together — a single sequence representing a day on the sea. As Richard Freed suggests, La Mer is as close to a Debussy symphony as any composition he gave us. By the time of its composition, a year after his operatic masterpiece Pelléas et Mélisande, the 20th century was young and Debussy was elevating his music to a heights, applying his large gifts in large-scaled works. Their breadth intensified the characteristics that his contemporary listeners found challenging: the sensuous, modal scales, ambiguous rhythms, and — most of all — those gliding, unresolved harmonies that keep on rolling and never arrive.
At early performances, doubters predominated even among well-informed listeners, with some critics waggishly comparing their experience with La Mer to a struggle for survival at sea. Among its early champions were composers including Giacomo Puccini and Debussy's friend Erik Satie. Today, with the sounds of French Impressionist music more familiar to our ears, La Mer is universally appreciated as the masterpiece it is.
The first movement of La Mer represents "From Dawn to Noon on the Sea," with the sun rising to its height and the waves gathering energy. Here, as in all three movements, brief fragments of melody take shape and dematerialize almost before we can recognize them, gesturally forming the impression of the rocking waters and the sparkle of light. The latent power of the waves is suggested by the ebb and flow of the cellos, with echoes in the horns and timpani.
In "The Play of the Waves," Debussy's fragmented, watery figures dart from section to section of the orchestra, with xylophone and harp accents seeming to glint on the water. Motion is ever-present in La Mer, and in this movement, a kind of generalized energy gains in tension as it progresses, leading us directly to the final "Dialogue of the Wind and Sea." Here Debussy reprises a theme from the opening movement, but restates it with greater dynamic and textural contrasts. The effect is one of growing power and urgency, reflecting the sea's immensity.
As always, a word of caution when listening to Debussy: relax. Let the music carry you along. Like those early critics, you won't hear singable tunes or chord progressions that resolve and start over. But you will hear a gorgeously sensual evocation of the sea in all its variety.