JUly COMPOSER: claude debussy
La Mer 1903-05
La Mer (French for The Sea) is a well-known composition of Debussy’s, some call it a masterpiece. It is an extremely atmospheric piece of music, drawing heavily on rolling sonorous chords and notes creating an intimate imagery that evokes all the senses. It’s a very familiar style (to me anyway) from film and television scores. However, for this piece at least, the imagination does a more wonderful version producing images than any film could.
The 25 minutes of La Mer is made up of 3 symphonic sketches, although they flow so well from one to another that I struggle to separate them. I’m not familiar with what a sketch is but I imagine it is a little like a scene, three symphonic scenes that make up this overall symphonic story. It’s said that Debussy continued to grind against tradition by refusing to call La Mer a symphony despite its similarities. So it lies in a grey area, sort of symphony sort of not.
The first movement is known as ‘From dawn to noon on the sea’ and is quite a slow drawing piece. The second is known as ‘The play of the waves’ a lighter, faster section that acts almost as a sandwich filling between the first and third movements. The third is known as ‘Dialogue of the wind and waves’ as is a more turbulent, rollicking piece, like a stormy climax.
Watch Gergiev conduct the LSO, his expressions throughout are fantastic to watch, especially the one he has right at the start — a sly, smirk of knowing what’s about to come.
There is a rolling, swaying quality to this piece and it’s difficult not to think of the sea once you know the name La Mer. And while there is no human element intended to be depicted I find that I have inserted one anyway. A small red tug, similar to one from a child’s picture book, riding on the sea. A sea that’s neither angry or sad it is simply being what it is. The little tug rolls calmly at one with the waves as they get larger and smaller. It’s a scene of some serenity, even when the wind picks up the white caps begin to appear at the tips of those waves. Storm clouds gather over the horizon. But when the sky grows darker, the sea too grows greyer, blacker even – belying that huge mass of unknown that lies just beneath the surface. A non-human habitat.The rain lashes down heavily. The little tug rises up the crests of waves and plunges back down the into the trough, spray swamps its deck. The little tug is tipped violently to from side to side by the waves but remains resolutely upright and goes on with its journey. And what a journey it’s on, on the sea.
The early 1900s were said to be when Debussy published some of his greatest creative works. Many people attribute this to his leaving his first wife and taking up with his lover (later to be his second wife) – it was scandalous event in local society and they spent a period of self-imposed exile from France in Eastbourne in England, which is where he finished La Mer. The English seaside is not exactly the image this piece conjures. Interestingly Debussy himself claimed he gained inspiration from paintings of the sea rather than the sea itself. An artists idea of an element, influencing another artists work. Perhaps not surprising it is such a scenic piece of music.
As for his turbulent personal life. Reports are not glowing about Debussy’s character and relationships with people. But I am beginning to wonder if drama and excesses go hand in hand with brilliant works.
*images in order of appearance courtesy of Public Domain, Albert Bierstadt via Public Domain, William Glackens via Public Domain, Katsushika Hokusai via Public Domain