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La Mer

Part symphony and part tone poem, Debussy’s innovative La Mer is one of the most influential pieces of the 20th century and has been as an audience favorite for more than a hundred years. La Mer was premiered in 1905 and the BSO gave the American premiere in March 1907.

Quick Facts

  • Composer’s life: Born August 22, 1862, in St.-Germain-en-Laye, France; died on March 25, 1918, in Paris
  • Year completed: 1905
  • First performance: October 15, 1905, Lamoureux Orchestra, Camille Chevillard conducting
  • First BSO performance: March 1, 1907, Karl Muck conducting (U.S. premiere)
  • Approximate duration: 22 minutes

La Mer is scored for 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes and English horn, 2 clarinets, 3 bassoons and contrabassoon (the latter in the 3rd movement only), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 cornets à piston (3rd movement only), 3 trombones, bass tuba, timpani, cymbals, tam-tam, triangle, glockenspiel, bass drum, two harps, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). The string section Debussy hoped for was an unusually large one, including 16 cellos.

Debussy had very little real experience of the sea, and that usually from the vantage point of a sandy beach. Yet among the few views of his childhood that the unusually private composer vouchsafed to the world was the occasional affectionate reference to summer vacations at Cannes, where he learned to love the sea. His parents even made plans that he should become a sailor (a life that could hardly have suited him for long), but they were scotched when a certain Mme. Mauté, who was giving the 9-year-old boy piano lessons, discovered his musical talent, and within a year he was studying piano and theory at the Paris Conservatoire.

Still, when he came to write La Mer thirty years later, Debussy commented that he was able to draw upon “innumerable memories” and that these were “worth more than reality, which generally weighs down one’s thoughts too heavily.” In the meantime, Debussy’s memories were charged with images drawn from literature and art. One hint of a source for the piece comes from the title Debussy originally thought of giving the first movement: “Calm sea around the Sanguinary Islands.” This was, in fact, the title of a short story by Camille Mauclair that had apparently been published in 1893 (“Îles Sanguinaires” is the French name for Sardinia and Corsica). It is even conceivable that Debussy was thinking of writing a sea-piece using this title as early as the 1890s, though in fact the first clear reference to La Mer comes from a letter of September 12, 1903, to André Messager: “I am working on three symphonic sketches under the title La Mer: Mer belle aux Îles Sanguinaires; Jeux de vagues; and La Vent fait danser la mer.” Only the second of these titles (“Play of the Waves”) remained in the final version. The first came from Mauclair’s story, to be changed in the end to “From Dawn to Noon on the Sea.” The last (“The Wind Makes the Sea Dance”) was later turned into the rather more neutral “Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea.”

But the most direct inspiration for La Mer was probably from art. Debussy had admired the sea paintings of Turner, with their misty impalpability, which had been on display in Paris and which he may also have seen during London visits in 1902 and 1903, shortly before he began composing La Mer. Still more influential were the Japanese artists Hokusai and Hiroshige, whose work became enormously popular in France by the end of the 19th century. When the score of La Mer was published, Debussy requested that the cover design include a detail of Hokusai’s most famous print, “The Hollow of the Wave off Kanagawa,” the part showing the giant wave towering above and starting to curve over in its downward fall, its foaming billows frozen in a stylized pattern that almost resembles leaves on a tree.

Debussy came to La Mer soon after the success of his one completed opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, performed to great acclaim in April 1902. In the following years, he showed a new confidence in his art, prolifically turning out the second set of Fêtes galantes, the first set of Images for piano, and the brilliant piano solo L’Îsle joyeuse, as well as La Mer. Moreover, he may well have expected La Mer to be even more successful with the public than the opera had been. La Mer, for all of Debussy’s modesty in calling it simply “three symphonic sketches,” is nothing less than a full-fledged symphony, with interrelationships between the movements and an artful balance of tension and repose, climax and release. It has been called the greatest symphony ever written by a French composer.

But the work at its premiere caused violent controversy, with assessments ranging from “the composer’s finest work” to “lifeless as dried plants in a herbarium.” The rehearsals had been marked by overt objections from the members of the orchestra. Debussy later told Stravinsky that the violinists had tied handkerchiefs to the tips of their bows in rehearsal as a sign of ridicule and protest. Part of the reason may have been non-musical: Debussy was, at just that time, an object of scandal. In the autumn of 1903 he had met Emma Bardac, the wife of a banker. In June 1904 he left his wife and moved into an apartment with Bardac, where they lived for the rest of Debussy’s life. In October his wife attempted suicide, and a number of Debussy’s friends broke off relations with him.

The mixed impression of the premiere was reversed when Debussy himself conducted La Mer in Paris on January 19 and 26, 1908—even though he had never before conducted an orchestra. Yet, as he wrote later, “One of my main impressions is that I really reached the heart of my own music.” The two performances were spectacularly successful in a way Debussy had not seen since the premiere of Pelléas. (To give credit where credit is, at least in part, due, the orchestra had been prepared by Eduard Colonne before the composer took over for the last rehearsals.)

La Mer has never been amenable to the simple summaries of formal elements such as “sonata form” that can at least give direction to the listener’s perceptions of, say, a Classical symphony. The use of orchestral color is more immediately identifiable than melodic shapes, though these play a crucial role in the work as well, and the harmonies are sui generis.

The first movement’s title, “From Dawn to Noon on the Sea,” is not intended to prescribe a particular program but merely to indicate a progression from near darkness, in which objects are indistinct, to brightness, in which they are clearly perceptible. (Debussy’s friend Erik Satie commented to Debussy that he “particularly liked the bit at a quarter to eleven.”) Debussy’s pictorialism is wonderfully evocative in its suggestion of indistinct outlines that gradually appear to view, the light evidently breaking forth in the undulating tremolos of the strings just at the moment that the principal key, D-flat major, is established. The horns resound with melodic shapes using pentatonic scales over a moving cello line that is also pentatonic. Since this five-note scale is often used by composers to symbolize the Orient, at least one commentator has suggested, possibly with tongue in cheek, that Debussy chose to open in this way because, of course, the sun rises in the east! A striking change comes with a new theme in the cellos, which seem at first to bring the motion to a halt and then proceed in wavelike triplets, which build to the movement’s climax.

The second movement, “Play of the Waves,” is a lighter scherzo, scored with extreme delicacy. It is a contrasting interlude between the stormy and emphatic passions of the first and last movements.

“Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea” begins with an evident pictorial image: the waves softly surging up in the low strings, answered by the winds—the woodwinds, in fact—blowing high up in chromatic shrieks. The struggle of wind and waves is developed at length, turning to material drawn from the opening movement, and building to a brilliant sunlit conclusion.

Steven Ledbetter

Steven Ledbetter, a freelance writer and lecturer on music, was program annotator of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1998.

The first United States performances—which were also the first Boston Symphony performances—of La Mer were led by Karl Muck on March 1 and 2, 1907.