Spring Symphonies: 52/60 - Debussy: La Mer

From Russia to France and from a symphony in classical form to something which isn’t even called a symphony, though preying in said an argument put up in the Guardian no less, it IS a piece sub-titles Symphonic sketches.

Debussy’s La Mer was written between 1903 and 1905 - contemporaneous with the composer’s own Suite Bergamasque, Ravel’s Miriors, Sibelius’ Pelleas and Vaughan Williams’ In Fen Country.  It is well known that it was finished in an Eastbourne Hotel (the irony of it’s sunny disposition and the typical weather of the English Channel is seldom not noted).  That back story is worth going into a little further though.

It was written at a turbulent time in his life.  He had been subject to hostility in Paris in 1904 due to his affair with Emma Bardac - the wife of a Parisian banker.  Things were made more difficult for the pair when Debussy’s wife Rosalie Texier attempted suicide by shooting herself on the Place de la Concorde - she failed.  The lovers escaped to England where they lived in the Grand Hotel, Eastbourne hotel whilst Debussy finished off this work: she was pregnant.  Divorces granted the couple moved back to Paris by September of 1905.  I think a lot could be made of the emotional strain on Debussy here but frankly I don’t think he was the type - his earlier relationships seemed to count for nought if there was someone more appealing in prospect.  I suspect the sensuous eroticism of this piece is a bigger driver than anything else.  As Mary Garden wrote “….He was a very very strange man.”
Debussy was the prime innovator of his age musically speaking he cleared the way for composers for the rest of the century.  Although La Mer isn’t formally marked as a symphony as we can see from the above - I don’t think Debussy was one for formality.

The descriptive tiles for the movements tell us all we wish to know: this is about waves and wind and the sea/  I always envisage a Mediterranean sea - the sun beaming down - but I think it’s fair to say that one could be anywhere.

The movements are:-
  1. De l’aube à midi sur la mer
  2. Jeux de vagues
  3. Dialogue du vent et de la mer
The first movement begins quietly with a drum roll and low rocking - it is held for a moment whilst wind instruments and brass join in with a tune that is less nautical than any you might imagine.  This is not a tribute to man and the sea but to the elements themselves.  That said the writing is highly pictorial so there are none of the usually musical images which make most sea pieces reek of enforced nautically. Vaughan Williams Sea Symphony of 1909 - though started about the same time as La Mer has shanties, seagulls and cymbal crashes at every waves break.  Debussy is giving us something very different which set the tone for much sea-imagery from Britten’s Sea Interludes to the work of Takemitsu and David Matthews’ Vision of Sea.

The sunrise and subsequent morning are as full as melody as any piece of classical music, though at first they are hard to take in.  The highlighting, variety of rhythm, timbre, harmonic subtleties are not wildly new in and of themselves but taken together with Debussy’s complete abandonment of musical form they make for a thrilling set of effects on the one hand.  On the other hand there are distinct relationships everywhere and so coherence (though not obvious at first) is built in.  In later times we would certainly have called this a symphony.  I could listen the bits where my ears are just entranced by Debussy’s invention.  The movement’s second half is full of amazing transformation - leaping string figures, a dramatic becalming where ether sun shines so brightly the music becomes bleached out, a magical spell cast by cello and oboe over muted strings - the deep telling rolling of the horns moving to a fantastic crashing climax - like moving from the sheltered waters of a harbour into the open sea - and so much more.

This music has to be delivered with insouciance though - take it too academically and the whole thing falls apart. Karajan’s subtle tempo changes and glossy view of the score’s more important components will not please everyone.  But he delivers that most haunting of qualities - improvisory quality, demonstrating the thrust of the score without the letter, bound up with a fair measure on the sexy side of tempo fluctuation.  The score abounds with moments of sensual pleasure which might politely be described as ecstatic.

The second movement has waves playing - it is full of crystalline but fluid figures, always he gives us a moment to attend and then off we go, with little preparation. I found it all very confusing the first time I heard it.  The  woodwind here supply vivid illustrations of just how the waves play together.  It is heyday stuff and do I hear gulls above? Perhaps I do but this is all part of his impressionistic sense of the spirit of the sea.  It is a degree more active than the previous movement as the next will be more animated again. I find this music gripping and refreshing.  The speed with which Debussy can whip up a storm and then for it dissipate is quite amazing and a little unnerving.  Just as the sea should be.  We are sensually and emotionally engaged now - so to his final act of wizardry. 

The final moment has wind and sea in dialogue marked animated and tumultuous.  It begins graphically and there’s much in the way Debussy grabs the music by the scruff and quickly turns it in on itself, to become the accompaniment to a trumpet fanfare.  The regularity is always countered with slightly uncomfortable cross rhythms at first but as the music progress we see this not as a dialogue but as meeting of two opposing forces.  It provides great climatic build up and then some exquisite shimmering passages, it cover the gamut of moods (as we experience the sea ourselves).  There will be many moments which grab the listener.  My heart was sold on the passage just about halfway through where strings are hold a sustained high note with flutes beneath them expounding the main theme.  It is just all about these elements in balance - just for a moment - the music should slow here so everyone can just bathe in the warmth of Debussy’s conception.  The music builds to something special - yes it’s throbbing and full of very deep rooted reactions which I can only describe as vibrantly erotic - but it moves quickly to a climax for the whole symphony, Debussy’s control is phenomenal.  The fanfare (in recordings available in various permutations to suit your source score: trumpets, horns or in some cases no fanfare at all) ups the pace, passion and richness of this wonderful score.  Debussy throwing the kitchen sink in the last few pages to bring out his brilliant sense of what makes music move and move us.  His experience of Eastern music at close hand in Paris is surely part of this wonderful eruption and abrupt finish.  I can’t think of much music which is more thrilling in concert or in recording.  It seems to engage at a very primeval level.

Perhaps I haven’t made the best case for symphonic structure - but I can borrow from theatre and film and make a case for three acts which each have their own climax and each claim getting more climatic - which is according to some how the best play and film should be structured.  There are obvious cells of melodic material which is common.  Does it pass my now subjective symphonic test that the whole should be greater than the sum of it’s parts? Yes - easily, more easily than many symphonies I know.

Nonetheless, I hope you’ll forgive it’s conclusion and revel in it’s sounds and deep seated sense of what makes us tick.

Here’s Salonen with the Orchestre de Paris:-



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