Debussy: La Mer

performed by The Cleveland Orchestra under Pierre Boulez

There is no theory. You merely have to listen. Pleasure is the law.

The full French title, for what it’s worth, is La mer, trois esquisses symphoniques pour orchestre, and it’s a piece I’ve been looking forward to talking about for a long time. I’m not sure the above quote is really in reference to this piece in particular, but Debussy expressed it at some point, and the sentiment certainly applies here, with a sumptuous, richly fluid piece.

While Ravel and Debussy (at least the latter) may have hated the term ‘Impressionist,’ I shall use it here in saying that the idea of representing a non-musical thing musically seems especially suited to the tone poem, and this piece is a real treat. I also have outstandingly fond memories of the ocean, as apparently did the composer. A wonderful little write-up here, by Barbara Heninger, states:

[Debussy’s] purpose, as he later wrote to his stepson, was to depict the ocean’s constant mutability in ways that the painters in his Impressionist milieu could not. “Music,” he wrote, “has this over painting: it can bring together all manner of variations of color and light.”

The piece was completed in 1905 and did not garner a warm reception, but has since gone on to be one of Debussy’s most loved works. It’s also the man’s first appearance on the site, so welcome!

The piece lasts around 23 minutes and is in three movements. Wikipedia gives the English titles as follows:

  1. “From dawn to noon on the sea” or “From dawn to midday on the sea” – very slow – animate little by little (B minor)
  2. “Play of the Waves” – allegro (with a very versatile rhythm) – animated (C sharp minor)
  3. “Dialogue of the wind and the sea” or “Dialogue between wind and waves” – animated and tumultuous – give up very slightly (C sharp minor)

What might be so charming about this piece is that there’s no programme, no storyline to get in the way, only sound. I personally feel, in all my experiences on it, that the ocean is a universally enjoyed thing. Granted, there are people who’ve never been to the beach or out on the open ocean (as hard to fathom as that is for me), but there is something about the water, the sense of adventure, a Romantic idea of freedom, but also awe, wonder, respect, even a bit of fear that fascinates man. We will see in future works how Debussy is a master of color, even if only with a piano, in suggesting textures, emotions, feelings, in the way he writes, and he is a genius of orchestration, he and Ravel both.

This is easily heard in the orchestra. There are no real strange instruments called for. The only ones that jump out are contrabassoon, tuba, triangle, tamtam, and glockenspiel, and not even those are novel or strange. With that palette of sound, from the very opening of the piece, we begin to smell the intoxicating fragrance of the salty air. Wikipedia says:

La mer is a masterpiece of suggestion and subtlety in its rich depiction of the ocean, which combines unusual orchestration with daring impressionistic harmonies. The work has proven very influential, and its use of sensuous tonal colours and its orchestration methods have influenced many later film scores.

The three movements do not present a journey of any kind, not sunrise, midday and sunset, not leaving harbor and returning to shore, but three distinct atmospheres.

The piece begins ever so delicately, almost seductively, sweetly with strings and harps, but it’s almost purely textural. Oboes and clarinets enter, strings swell, and flutes follow in an up-and-down line that sets the tone for this movement, short notes leading to longer ones in the contour of a wave. It is liquid, it just flows, melodic lines and expressions from individual instruments continuously appearing and disappearing, but all unified as one whole, trills from woodwinds, tremolo from strings, various sounds from the orchestra combine to form one contiguous, flowing, lyrical, incredibly enticing whole. The beauty of the woodwinds, especially the cor anglais, is breathtaking. The score for this work shows it to be of considerable complexity, as any musician will know, but to the attentively passive listener, it’s just simple beauty in shades of blue.

There is a kind of spacious broadness, an open, sunny, freshness to the work, but I didn’t know what it stemmed from until I read the L.A. Philharmonic’s program notes here. Howard Posner talks about a few things, one being the use of whole tones, fourths and fifths used not only throughout the first movement, but the entire piece. He says:

Fourths and fifths stacked on each other have a strong, forthright quality (they are the key elements of fanfares) but also a sort of blankness… The fourth and fifths recur throughout the work without calling much attention to themselves, since they are such a fundamental part of tonal music, but they bring an elemental quality to the music, as if conveying something wide and open and vast – the ocean, for example.

That’s what I couldn’t put my finger on. The earlier part of the program notes also talk about Debussy’s thoughts on Beethoven’s Pastoral, and how his feelings about direct imitation of the sounds of nature informed his approach with this work.

The first movement ends in a glorious, sunny, triumphant brassy climax, like the spray of the sea off the bow of a ship. The second movement is scherzo-like, as some have pointed out, lending to the piece an actual symphonic kind of structure, with its two larger outer movements. Whatever it is, it’s more playful, sometimes in a carefree way, others with just a shade of ominous. This movement is more lively, sparkly, with textures and lines and shimmers from all over the orchestra, like we’ve zoomed in on certain ideas from the first movement, but it eventually fades and leads into the third movement.

The final movement is stronger than the other two, feeding off the power of the stronger themes in the first movement, but now given time to build, like a storm that gains momentum. It begins the most ominously of them all, with low strings and tamtam. It seems stormy, but only in stops and starts, and these ‘gusts’ of the orchestra seem fitting to the title of the movement. A solo trumpet calls out, and brass tends to dominate this movement. Sections of this movement are very crunchy, but it also has some of the most obvious, full-on movement of the entire work. The end is stupendously triumphant, and reaches some real highs before kind of summarizing all the sounds and textures from the entire work for a thrilling climax.

There’s very much a sense of listening to the music just happen. While it’s harmonically daring and rhythmically inventive and all that, I can’t imagine it’s as foreign or challenging to today’s ears as it was 111 years ago. Some of it almost sounds like film music, but far more inspired. I say ‘listening to it happen,’ because it’s not as if there’s a melodic line, a solo or theme with backup support, but just the music flowing and unraveling as it goes, sumptuous, rich harmonies, something to enjoy and relish at every turn, and while the music itself is full of layers and textures, the overwhelming result, to me, is something that’s incredibly easy to listen to. A gem of a piece.

Next week’s two pieces are in a similar vein, but with some notable differences, and a milestone. See you then.

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