La mer, L. 109

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            While others, notably Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner, were on the forefront of stylistic change during the nineteenth century, it is surely Claude Debussy who forever established entirely new approaches to thinking about the fundamental ways of defining and composing music in Western culture.   More than anyone, he truly was the father of much of the philosophical basis for the complete turnover in musical art that defined the twentieth century.  And, along the way, he composed some of the most original, creative, and dare we say, beautiful music in the repertoire.  His name, of course, is indelibly linked with what is popularly called “musical impressionism,” but that doesn’t really specifically tell you much.  What you may say is that he largely worked within a musical style that made little use of so many of the characteristics of a musical tradition that dominated the concert halls of the 18th and 19th centuries.   Many of us are familiar with concepts such as sonata form; development; key relationships; major and minor tonalities, with their respective scales, counterpoint, fugues, and especially “developing” musical ideas in an ongoing linear fashion. As dominant as these procedures were, Debussy saw other ways of creating and working with musical ideas.  His specifically French way of looking at things was quite a contrast to the ideas and methods of the German-speaking composers (all names we know so well!) that had dominated concert halls for a couple of centuries.  There was opera, to be sure, and Italians had always held sway there, but in abstract music (no words or story) the Germans were generally king.  Along comes Debussy with a refreshing alternative æsthetic.

            In a nutshell Debussy was not much interested in systems of musical composition, wherein each part—large or small—had a rational, expected, and traditional relationship to every other part.  Rather, he focused upon listening to musical sounds in new ways—considering them just for their intrinsic sound, and not how they might fit into a hierarchy as a mere building block.  In much of his music one sound, note, or chord did not necessarily strongly suggest what should come next, as had centuries of European music.  The sound simply existed in its own merits, its own beauty, and its own ability to evoke and conjure. Debussy opened up new ways of composing, listening, and thinking about music--and the musical world was changed forever.

            Perhaps no composition better reflects this major change in how music is conceived than does La mer, for it eschews so many of the formal principles of Western music.   By the time of its completion in 1905 Debussy had long been considered a major figure in the music world.  His many compositions were performed worldwide, although not every critic was convinced of his artistic position.  He had composed such important works as his ground breaking Prèlude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1895), the three orchestral Nocturnes (1899), and his opera, Pelléas et Mélisande (1902).  While the debate rages eternally over the application of the term, “impressionism,” to Debussy’s style, it is clear that in a general, non-theoretical sense, La mer remains a tour-de-force of impressions of the sea.  Debussy is on record as deprecating impressionism, and it is clear that his music is convincing and consciously rooted in the precepts of the “symbolist” movement in French poetry, rather than impressionism in the visual arts.  Symbolism sought the mystical, explored the imagination and images from dreams; it favored free and unrestricted forms—perhaps little formal structure.  Debussy admired and adapted themes from symbolist literature for most of his important works.  But, specific painters were among those whose æsthetic resonated with him, especially the American artist, James McNeill Whistler, and the English painter, Turner.   The extravagant washes of color that border on abstraction in the seascapes of the latter are an almost perfect analogy to Debussy’s sweeping sonic ambiguities in La mer.  The lack of clear, formal boundaries of Debussy’s composition mirror the preference of the symbolists for diffuseness and avoidance of clarity.  And so, in La mer, one will listen in vain for “main themes,” traditional forms such as “sonata” and “rondo,” home keys, and the like.  Rather, the listener basks in a series of evocations of clouds, waves, sunlight, and reflections—all musically mirroring the rhapsodic, ephemeral, ever-changing imagery of the seashore.

            Debussy’s mastery of orchestral color is the basis for all of this, scoring for multiple divisions of the strings, pure woodwind colors, and muted or sparing use of the brass.  For all of the composer’s precedent shattering innovations described above, his sound is primarily beautifully consonant and ingratiating, complemented by an almost infinite mastery of subtle rhythms and non-traditional scales.  Not without import was Debussy’s epochal encounter with the sounds of the Javanese gamelan orchestra at the Exposition Universelle in 1889 in Paris.  Into all of this, one must remember that the composer was an expert on the music of Wagner, and at one time toured, playing and lecturing on the German’s operas.  What he took from that was nothing that sounded exactly like Wagner, but was nevertheless strongly influenced by his command of orchestral color and textures, and his advanced harmonic language.

            La mer is divided into three movements: “From dawn to noon on the sea,” “Play of the waves,” and “Dialogue of the wind and the sea.”  While traditional formal structure is mostly absent, there is a basic familiar symmetry in the insertion of a more active, almost scherzo-like middle section, depicting the waves.  In all three movements, just as sunlight quickly changes colors and shadows on a seascape, Debussy moves quickly and unpredictably in the music.  There is a notable lack of the usual musical clichés used by composers from Mendelssohn to Richard Rogers to depict nautical scenes, but the effect is clear and unmistakable.  Debussy’s depictive ideas now live on in countless imitations all around us by those who paint the sea in sound.  His imagery is perfect, his technique and tools were totally original, and anyone who has truly looked at sun, clouds, and sea, and who has felt the wind on the shore, understands intuitively Debussy’s intent.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan