Debussy’s love of the sea derived from two sources: his father, a sailor, who told his son beguiling stories of his life on the ocean, and visual arts. The composer’s only “ocean voyages” were the three times (including one very rough crossing) when he went to England via the English Channel. Nonetheless, he wrote to his publisher, Jacques Durand, “the sea is always endless and beautiful. It is really the thing in nature which bests puts you in your place…The sea has been very good to me. She has shown me all her moods. You do not know perhaps that I was intended for the fine career of a sailor and only the chances of life led me away from it…I have an endless store of memories…Music is a free art, boundless as the elements, the wind, the sky, and the sea.” On the cover of the manuscript he placed the drawing titled Hollow of the Wave off Kanagawa by Katsushika Hokusai. For the composer, the sea was a psychological phenomenon.
In 1903, he began work on his musical triptych titled La Mer, subtitled “symphonic sketches,” the last of his large scale works. The first section is titled From Dawn to Noon on the Sea. Celli announce the dawn with a soft, rising motif. Muted trumpet and French horn enter with a lovely small theme, which returns in the last movement. Though at rest, the ocean seems unquestionably powerful. Gradually, pairs of flutes and clarinets whip up watery splashes. Celli return to sing a lush, four-part lyric tune. As the sea becomes more animated, melodic fragments appear and disappear quickly. Like the water, all the music is moving. By noontime, light streaks across the water in a climatic brass chorale as the sun travels across the heavens. Erik Satie quipped, “I like the part at quarter to eleven best.”
Debussy’s second reflection is titled The Play of the Waves. Again, the music begins quietly, but this time the sea works itself into an energetic, capricious scherzo. Waves move quickly within irregular rhythms and fast-moving passages. Winds are featured in this section, and his spectacular writing for them is one of the great hallmarks of the French school. At the close, the sea resumes a mysterious silence.
The third section is titled Dialogue of the Wind and Sea. ”A foreboding opening in lower strings promise a storm; orchestral forces become stronger and more ominous. Suddenly an exquisite melody emerges, “as if a mermaid were singing.” Oboe, English horn, and bassoon take their turns at the new tune, references are made to ideas from the first movement, and the water surges to a huge climax announced by the horns.
When La Mer premiered on October 15, 1905, it did not find great success. The score was difficult, players complained, the audience hissed, and sexual scandal was in the air. Debussy unwisely appeared with the wife of a Parisian banker who was not only the mistress of Fauré, but was carrying Debussy’s daughter (born two weeks later). Neither she nor Debussy had bothered to obtain divorces, and social criticism was running high. Parisians were itching to punish. Debussy’s music was a secondary matter. Pierre Lalo, reviewer for Le Temps, trashed the work, commenting, “I neither hear nor see nor feel the sea.” Two weeks later, La Mer appeared in London to an enthusiastic response and, as years have passed, the scandal incident abated, La Mer and its evocation of the sea triumphed, still leaving us spellbound.
© Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2017