French Impressionism in Music: Debussy's "La Mer"
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French Impressionism in Music: Debussy's "La Mer"

Debussy's masterwork suite, "La Mer", a history and analysis of the large symphonic work composed between 1903 and 1905.

The term "Impressionism" was coined in the mid-19th century to describe a new theory of aesthetics in painting and literature predicated upon a rejection of the forms and practices of the past, most particularly against the Romantic predilection for the expression of heroism, sentimentality and exaggerated pathos. The Impressionist painters emphasized design, color and light rather than form and substance. The poets of this school sought to appeal to the senses rather than the intellect of their readers by utilizing words, for example, for the sake of their "color" rather than meaning. The Impressionists valued the feeling or impression aroused by a subject more than the subject itself. As a young man, Debussy was highly influenced by these artists; in embracing the aesthetic ideals of the Impressionists, Debussy rejected the musical traditions and forms of the past. Generally considered the founder of the modern school of harmony, he did for music what the Impressionists did for painting and literature; he literally created "tonal colors" which one can find not only in his compositions for the orchestra but in his chamber works as well. In his music, Debussy sought to emphasize a new freedom of expression largely inspired by his close observation of nature. As he wrote: "Music is the expression of the movement of the waters, the play of curves describing the changing breezes. He who feels what he sees will find no more beautiful development in all that book which, alas, musicians read but too little - the book of Nature."

Debussy at the Grand Hotel in 1905, where he completed "La Mer."

Debussy began work on La Mer in 1903, a year after the premier of his opera Pelléas et Mélisande and completed the score on March 5, 1905 at Eastbourne, a town on the southern coast of England. From Eastbourne, he wrote to his publisher, Jacques Durand: "The place is peaceful and charming. The sea rolls itself with a correctness truly Britannic... But what a great place to work. No noise, no pianos, except those delicious mechanical pianos, no musicians talking about painting, nor painters talking about music."

Debussy's manuscript to "La Mer"

The first performance of La Mer took place in Paris at the Concerts Lamoureux on October 15, 1905, Camille Chevillard conducting. It is reported that the work was met with a timid reception. Debussy himself conducted the work in London in 1908. An American musician, Donald Ferguson, who attended this performance, gives the following account: "I well remember the gasp of astonishment that greeted the appearance of the composer, who was dressed in a brown business suit instead of a long, black frock coat which was de rigeur in those days... The reception of the work was not enthusiastic... but it was attended by no such marks of disapproval as were shown when he again conducted the work in Paris in the following month."

Debussy himself gave La Mer the subtitle "Three Symphonic Sketches." Nonetheless, to term the three sections of La Mer - "De l'aube à midi sur la mer" (From Dawn Till Noon on the Sea); "Jeux de vagues" (Play of the Waves) and "Dialogue du vent et de la mer" (Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea) - sketches, given their symphonic scope and refined detail, is truly an exercise in understatement. Léon Vallas, Debussy's biographer, contended that, taken as a whole, La Mer so closely follows symphonic principles of organization that the work could legitimately be considered a "symphony," with each of its sections appropriately re-titled Allegro, Scherzo and Finale.

In the first sketch, "De l'aube à midi sur la mer," the music begins quietly and placidly with gently undulating figures capturing the buffeting quality of undisturbed waters. The music proceeds to grow and swell as if it were "awakening," and the pace of the music quickens and the dynamic level increases. The sketch concludes with a triumphant chorale scored for brass. The first sketch leads directly without pause into the second, "Jeux de vagues," which is a study of the motion of the waves in sunlight. It features melodic fragments and ostinato patterns varied in rhythm and color, and overlapping to portray the play of waves. After a brief pause, the third sketch, "Dialogue du vent et de la mer," commences. It is a study of the waves interacting with the wind. The music is at times calm, at other times it grows more restive, then returns to calm once more. The drama of the final sketch is commanding. Earlier musical material reappears, including the chorale melody of the first sketch, which builds to a great and explosive climax. Although each of the three sketches of La Mer could be considered as complete and total tone poems, Debussy so thoroughly integrated them with the work that it is hard to imagine them per-formed alone, apart from the context of the overall work.

Aside from the clues provided by the composer's titles, an explicit programmatic intent is somewhat difficult to ascertain for La Mer. As the music critic for Le Temps, Pierre Lalo, harshly wrote of the work's premiere: "I neither hear, nor see nor feel the sea." Nevertheless, it takes much less than a fertile imagination to sense the "personality" of the sea so magically captured and poetically expressed by Debussy in this work. The composer's ingenious use of a panoply of orchestral effects vividly creates a pastiche of the many and varied images of the sea. Consider, for example, Debussy's scoring of string passages played sur le touche, which evoke the impression of billowing, undulating waves; ostinato patterns built on whole-tone scales suggestive of the sea's infinite fluidity; the majestic chorale scored for brass representing the grandeur and immenseness of the sea.  The utilization of harmonics and string passages played detaché, creating the impression of shimmering sunlight in the waters.  There are instances of pizzicato, passages scored for glockenspiel, triple tonguing in the trumpets and flutes, and double glissandi in the harp, all creating the effect of rippling waters.  The layering of textures and timbres, further accentuates crescendos and decrescendos, combining to paint a picture of the un-ending waves rising, cresting and ebbing away again.

Author's addendum:

*  The cover image is "la mer au soleil couchant," 1986, by Michael Michelitsch

* The embedded audio file above is a terrificly filmed performance of the London Symphony Orchestra.  The camera angles are particularly nice, showing the subtle voiceleading throughout the instrumentation of Debussy, which is much more challenging for the listener than a mere audio recording.  While this work was premiered just over a century ago, filmakers and cinematographers continue to shamelessly "borrow" from this work and call it their own. 

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Comments (8)

Very nice presentation!

Thanks, James!

Exceptional artist, I love his quote, "Music is the expression of the movements of water....." Impressive article.

thank you, Ron.

Ranked #4 in Music & Musicians

Excellent account of the musical equivalent of Impression painting. Would Satie be considered an Impressionist too, at least before he became involved with Dada?

Re: Satie, Very good question, but no. Briefly, and excuse me for saying so, Satie, though an independent thinker, was a madman. Reading his biography is really worthwhile (and pretty entertaining) , but musicially, he was inconsistent at best. Some of his earlier works are nice, before the post-war era.when he was more associated with Surrealism, and to a lesser extent, Dadaism, but looking at his entire body of work, the structures are more like cafe-cabaret works. He simply wasn't anyware near the level of Les Six.

Another great classical music, Ileen.

Thanks, as always, Will.

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