Debussy: La Mer

ACHILLE-CLAUDE DEBUSSY (He dropped the name Achille in 1892.)

BORN: August 22, 1862. Saint Germain-en-Laye, Départment of Seine-et-Oise, France

DIED: March 25, 1918. Paris, France

COMPOSED: Begun in the summer of 1903, completed in March 1905. Debussy continued to make revisions for many years afterwards. Debussy dedicated La Mer to his publisher Jacques Durand
WORLD PREMIERE: October 15, 1905. Camille Chevillard conducted the Lamoureux Orchestra, in Paris

US PREMIERE: October 2, 1907. Karl Muck and the Boston Symphony

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—January 1914. Henry Hadley conducted. MOST RECENT—May 2017. Charles Dutoit conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes and English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons and contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, bass tuba, timpani, cymbals, tam-tam, triangle, glockenspiel, bass drum, 2 harps, and strings. (The string section Debussy hoped for but can rarely, if ever, have found is an unusually large one, including 16 cellos.)

DURATION: About 23 mins

THE BACKSTORY Pierre Boulez has written that, among Debussy’s symphonic works, La Mer “best fulfills the conditions of the genre in the most usual sense of the term, especially if one considers the effective coda of the last movement, which carries to its maximum the rhetoric of ‘the culminating point,’ a rhetoric practically lacking in all his other orchestral pieces.”

The subtle orchestral Images and the elusive-allusive Jeux were still in the future when La Mer was introduced; even so, on the basis of the Debussy they already knew, Parisian critics in 1905 seemed to have a clear sense that this new score was somehow different. Some who had been among the composer’s most dedicated allies were now among the most disappointed of observers, specifically because La Mer moved so decisively away from the mist-washed, unmuscular delicacy that had been so valued by the Debussyists. Gaston Carraud, for example, writing in La Liberté, notes that “the rich wealth of sounds that interprets this vision [of the sea] with such accuracy and intensity, flows on without any unexpected jolts, its brilliance is less restrained, its scintillations are less mysterious. It is certainly genuine Debussy—that is to say, the most precious and the most subtle expression of our art—but it almost suggests the possibility that some day we may have an Americanized Debussy.” Puccini, always a sensitive and sympathetic listener to music more radical than his own, spoke of “Debussy’s revolt against Debussyisme.

Debussy all his life maintained a nearly total silence about his childhood. (At the time of the birth of Achille-Claude, Manuel-Achille Debussy and his wife ran a small ceramics store, the father soon changing to a job with the Fives-Lille‑Railway Company, which entailed moving the family to Clichy, a suburb of Paris). He did, however, make occasional and affectionate references to summer weeks spent at the beaches of Cannes. He learned then to love the sea, and no one who knows Debussy’s music need be told that what he loved particularly was its unpredictability, its ever‑changing nature. His parents at some point conceived the notion that he ought to be a sailor, but his vocation was determined when a Mme. Mauté de Fleurville, a lady with fascinating connections (she had been a pupil of Chopin and was the mother-in‑law of Paul Verlaine), discovered his musical gift.

Thirty years elapsed between those inspiring lessons and the first sketches for La Mer. It is, however, always a surprise to recall that La Mer was only the composer’s seventh major orchestral score, so brilliantly assured is it, so possessive in ways that sometimes make it seem that Debussy invented the modern orchestra.

THE MUSIC  As we gradually learn to discern objects in near darkness, so we learn to hear motion in the stillness of Debussy’s dawn. Thematic fragments detach themselves from the surrounding texture until at last a clear sense of motion, of rhythmic pattern, is established. Debussy is most evocative in the wonderful theme for cellos, its pattern of swell and retreat echoed subtly in the timpani and horns. It even looks like a wave on the page—so much, in fact, like the wave in the painting by Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai that Debussy asked his publisher to put a detail from that painting on the cover of his score.

The sketch of the Play of the Waves is scherzo and intermezzo in this not-quite-symphony, an interlude of lighter weight and less dense musical facture between the passions and storms, the awesome concentration of the first and third movements. The dialogue in the finale is often tempestuous. Exhibiting that new preoccupation with firm and perceptible formal design, Debussy ties the triumphant peroration to the last bars of the opening movement, the journey from dawn to noon.—Michael Steinberg

LISTEN AGAIN: Michael Tilson Thomas and the Philharmonia Orchestra (Sony) 

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

(May 2019)