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La Mer

About the Work

Claude Debussy
Quick Look Composer: Claude Debussy
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Mozart and La Mer Nov. 29 - Dec. 1, 2012
© Robert Markow

DEBUSSY: LA MER

 

I. De l'aube à midi sur la mer (From dawn to noon on the sea)

                   II. Jeux de vagues (The play of the waves)

                   III. Dialogue du vent et de la mer (Dialogue of the wind and the sea)

CLAUDE DEBUSSY: Born in Saint Germain-en-Laye, August 22, 1862; died in Paris, March 25, 1918

            The sea has exerted an irresistible attraction on man's mind and has been a stimulus to his creative instincts since the dawn of the human race itself. This fascination with the sea has impelled almost countless composers and songwriters to evoke it in their music.

             Few works so richly and evocatively portray the sea as Debussy's contribution to this repertory. In La Mer, Debussy portrays the sea in its various moods, but does not attempt explicit images in sound; rather, through sonorities he seeks to stir the memories, emotions and imagination, permitting each listener a personal perception of the sea. The first performance took place on October 15, 1905 at the Concerts Lamoureux in Paris, Camille Chevillard conducting.

            The first part, "From dawn to noon on the sea," begins very quietly, with slow, mysterious murmuring. Through sonority itself, Debussy evokes the sensation of peering into the very depths of the dark, mysterious sea. As the sea awakens, the orchestral colors brighten and motion quickens. The music swings into a rocking 6/8 meter, and we hear a leisurely call from the muted horns. A mosaic of melodic fragments fills the music in constantly changing sonorities. One of these is heard in the divisi cellos, and is developed into an impressive climax. After subsiding, a new melodic idea, a noble chorale-like passage, appears and slowly grows to paint a majestic picture of the sea under the blazing noonday sun.

            "The Play of the waves" is full of sparkle and animation. Like the first sea picture, melodic fragments are developed in an ever-changing mosaic of orchestral hues. The range and delicacy of Debussy's scoring fascinate at every turn - even the ‘ping' of the triangle has evocative power. Debussy's biographer Oscar Thompson describes this music as "a world of sheer fantasy, of strange visions and eerie voices, a mirage of sight and equally a mirage of sound. On the sea's vast stage is presented trance-like phantasmagoria so evanescent and fugitive that it leaves behind only the vagueness of a dream."

            The final seascape, "Dialogue of the wind and the sea," opens restless, gray and stormy, the music suggesting the mighty surging and swelling of the water. Melodic fragments from the first movement return. The activity subsides, and out of the mists comes a haunting, distant call, like that of the sirens, perhaps, high in the woodwinds. The music again gathers energy. Finally we hear once more the grandiose chorale motive from the first sketch, and La Mer concludes in a frenzy of whipping wind and dashing waves.