The initial reaction to La Mer wasn’t positive which is hard to imagine nowadays and it’s premiere perplexed its audience and the critics, who were not kind in their reviews: “crafty“, “incomprehensible and lacking in grandeur“, “sharp sonority and often unpleasant“…
Luckily today we all recognise what a work of genius it really is.
To find out more, here’s a sneak peak at the programme notes for our Brahms and Debussy concert.
La Mer, Three Symphonic Sketches
Claude Debussy was born in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France, to an impoverished, and not at all musical, family. However, his obvious gift at the piano won him a place at the age of ten to France’s leading music college, the Conservatoire de Paris. There, his instructors disapproved of his delight in ‘forbidden’ harmonies while his fellow students found his innovative compositions and mesmerizing piano improvisations strange. Despite this, at age 22, he won France’s most prestigious musical award, the Prix de Rome. The prize included a four-year residence in Rome to further his musical studies. However, he found life there irksome and left after only two years.
Back in Paris he led a bohemian life, enjoying the café society but struggling financially while pursuing his experimental approach to composition. It was not until 1902, aged nearly 40, that Debussy achieved international fame with his only opera, Pelléas et Mélisande.
Debussy died in Paris of colon cancer when he was just 55 years old. Often described as the first Impressionist composer, he disliked the term. In his words, “I love music passionately. And because I love it, I try to free it from barren traditions that stifle it. It is a free art gushing forth, an open-air art boundless as the elements, the wind, the sky, the sea. It must never be shut in and become an academic art.”
La Mer is the closest piece to a symphony that Debussy wrote. Its original reception was rather mixed – during rehearsals the violinists tied handkerchiefs to the tips of their bows in protest. But it is hard to know whether the hostile reaction was to the novel and challenging music or to the scandal that had preceded it. While his wife of four years, fashion model Lily Texier, was away visiting her father, Debussy had secretly holidayed with Emma Bardac, wife of a Parisian banker and a gifted singer. When he subsequently wrote to his wife informing her that the marriage was over, Lily shot herself. Miraculously she survived, with the bullet remaining lodged in a vertebra under her left breast for the rest of her life. In the ensuing public outrage, Emma’s family disowned her and they both lost a good many friends. Debussy and Emma, now pregnant, escaped to England, where La Mer was completed in 1905.
“You may not know that I was destined for a sailor’s life and that it was only quite by chance that fate led me in another direction. But I have always held a passionate love for the sea,” Debussy wrote. Although his father was a sailor, the composer was hardly a seafarer. His personal knowledge of the sea appears to have been derived from three Channel crossings, childhood summers at Cannes and an unfortunate storm-tossed voyage in a fishing boat along the coast of Brittany. By his own admission he preferred to draw his inspiration from the seascapes available in painting and literature. On the cover of the manuscript he placed the drawing titled “Hollow of the Wave off Kanagawa” by Katsushika Hokusai.
The first movement, begins very quietly, with slow, mysterious murmuring as if peering into the very depths of the dark, mysterious sea. As the sea awakens, the motion quickens. We hear a leisurely call from the muted horns. A mosaic of melodic fragments develops into an impressive climax. After subsiding, a new melodic idea, a noble chorale-like passage, appears and slowly grows into a majestic picture of the sea under the blazing noonday sun.
The next movement is lighter and faster, full of sparkle and animation. The music conjures up pictures of rocking waves, unexpected shifts of current, the iridescent glint of sunlight on the surface of the water and the mysterious depths beneath.
The final seascape opens restless, grey and stormy, the music suggesting the mighty surging and swelling of the water. Melodic fragments from the first movement return. The activity subsides, and out of the mists comes a haunting, distant call high in the woodwinds. The music again gathers energy. Finally, we hear once more the chorale from the first sketch, and La Mer concludes with the sea in stormy triumph.