Conducted by the Finnish composer and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, the Orchestre de Paris performs La mer, trois esquisses symphoniques pour orchestre (English: The sea, three symphonic sketches for orchestra), or simply La Mer (i.e. The Sea), an orchestral composition (L 109) by the French composer Claude Debussy. Recorded at the Salle Pleyel (Paris) on 8 March 2011. Published by the EuroArts channel.
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La Mer (“The Sea”) is not only the title of Debussy’s orchestral masterwork but an apt metaphor for his innovative art. The work was started in 1903 in France and completed in 1905 at Grand Hotel Eastbourne on the English Channel coast. The premiere was given on 15 October 1905 in Paris, by the Orchestre Lamoureux under the direction of Camille Chevillard. It was initially not well received, but soon became one of Debussy’s most admired and frequently performed orchestral works.
La Mer is scored for 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, cor anglais, 2 clarinets, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 cornets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, tam-tam, glockenspiel, 2 harps, and strings.
There are three movements:
- “De l’aube à midi sur la mer” – très lent – animez peu à peu (si mineur) / English: “From dawn to noon on the sea” or “From dawn to midday on the sea” – very slow – animate little by little (B minor)
- “Jeux de vagues” – allegro (dans un rythme très souple) – animé (do dièse mineur) / English: “Play of the Waves” – allegro (with a very versatile rhythm) – animated (C# minor)
- “Dialogue du vent et de la mer” – animé et tumultueux – cédez très légérement (do dièse mineur) / English: “Dialogue of the wind and the sea” or “Dialogue between wind and waves” – animated and tumultuous – give up very slightly (C# minor)
La Mer is a masterpiece of suggestion and subtlety in its rich depiction of the ocean, which combines unusual orchestration with daring impressionistic harmonies. The work has proven very influential, and its use of sensuous tonal colors and its orchestration methods have influenced many later film scores.
While the structure of the work places it outside of both absolute music Notes 1 and programme music Notes 2 as those terms were understood in the early 20th century, it obviously uses descriptive devices to suggest wind, waves and the ambiance of the sea. But structuring a piece around a nature subject without any literary or human element to it – neither people, nor mythology, nor ships are suggested in the piece – also was highly unusual at the time.
As a young boy, Debussy’s parents had plans for him to join the navy. Debussy himself even commented on his fond childhood memories of the beauties of the sea. However, as an adult composing “La Mer,” he rarely visited the sea, spending most of his time far away from large bodies of water. Debussy drew inspiration from art, “preferring the seascapes available in painting and literature…” to the physical sea. This influence lends the piece its unusual nature.
Debussy called La Mer “three symphonic sketches,” avoiding the loaded term symphony. Yet the work is sometimes called a symphony; it consists of two powerful outer movements framing a lighter, faster piece that acts as a type of scherzo. But the author Jean Barraqué (in “La Mer de Debussy,” Analyse musicale 12/3, June 1988,) describes La Mer as the first work to have an “open” form – a devenir sonore or “sonorous becoming… a developmental process in which the very notions of exposition and development coexist in an uninterrupted burst.” Simon Trezise, in his book Debussy: La Mer (Cambridge, 1994) notes, however, that “motifs are constantly propagated by derivation from earlier motifs” (p. 52).
Simon Trezise notes that “for much of La Mer, Debussy spurns the more obvious devices associated with the sea, wind, and concomitant storm in favor of his own, highly individual vocabulary” (p. 48-49). Caroline Potter (in “Debussy and Nature” in The Cambridge Companion to Debussy, p. 149) adds that Debussy’s depiction of the sea “avoids monotony by using a multitude of water figurations that could be classified as musical onomatopoeia: they evoke the sensation of swaying movement of waves and suggest the pitter-patter of falling droplets of spray” (and so forth), and – significantly – avoid the arpeggiated triads used by Wagner and Schubert to evoke the movement of water.
1. Absolute music
Absolute music (sometimes abstract music) is music that is not explicitly “about” anything; in contrast to program music, it is non-representational. The idea of absolute music developed at the end of the 18th century in the writings of authors of early German Romanticism, such as Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder, Ludwig Tieck and E. T. A. Hoffmann but the term was not coined until 1846 where it was first used by Richard Wagner in a programme to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
2. Program music
Program music or programme music is a type of art music that attempts to musically render an extra-musical narrative. The narrative itself might be offered to the audience in the form of program notes, inviting imaginative correlations with the music.
A paradigmatic example is Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, which relates a drug-induced series of morbid fantasies concerning the unrequited love of a sensitive poet involving murder, execution, and the torments of Hell. The genre culminates in the symphonic works of Richard Strauss that include narrations of the adventures of Don Quixote, Till Eulenspiegel, the composer’s domestic life, and an interpretation of Nietzsche’s philosophy of the Superman. Following Strauss, the genre declined and new works with explicitly narrative content are rare. Nevertheless, the genre continues to exert an influence on film music, especially where this draws upon the techniques of late romantic music.
The term is almost exclusively applied to works in the European classical music tradition, particularly those from the Romantic music period of the 19th century, during which the concept was popular, but pieces that fit the description have long been a part of the music. The term is usually reserved for purely instrumental works (pieces without singers and lyrics), and not used, for example for Opera or Lieder. Single movement orchestral pieces of program music are often called symphonic poems.
Absolute music, in contrast, is intended to be appreciated without any particular reference to the outside world.