Claude Debussy (1862-1918)

Born August 22, 1862 in Saint-Germain-en-Laye.

Died March 25, 1918 in Paris,

La Mer, Trois esquisses symphoniques

Composed in 1903-1905.

First Performance: Camille Chevillard, Concerts Lamoreaux, Paris, October 15, 1905.

Instrumentation: 3 flutes, piccolo, 3 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 4 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 5 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, 2 harps, and strings

It seems that as “French Impressionists” Ravel and Debussy are lumped together as if they were from the same compositional pod. They shared a dislike for Wagner and the German school. The titles they chose for their works sometimes were similar: Miroirs/Images, Jeux d’eau/Reflets dans l’eau, Rapsodie Espagnole/Ibéria, Le Tombeau de Couperin/Hommage à Rameau, Menuet sur le nom d’Haydn/Hommage à Haydn. They sometimes used similar musical elements such as the pentatonic scale and modal harmonies. However, aside from these similarities, the two men were really quite different. Ravel was a classicist. He worked within the classical forms to precisely sketch portraits precisely as he saw them, without revealing his feelings. Debussy expressed his feelings in his music. He avoided standard musical forms. Debussy gave La Mer the subtitle Three Symphonic Sketches, which might give the impression he was heading towards the symphony. An important point is that he did not use the structural or developmental techniques of symphonic composition.

Debussy affixed descriptive titles to the three movements of La Mer:

“De l’aube à midi sur la mer” – très lent (“From dawn to midday on the sea” – very slowly), “Jeux de vagues” – allegro (“Play of waves” – allegro), and “Dialogue du vent et de la mer” – animé et tumultueux (“Dialogue of the wind and the sea” – animated and tumultuous).  The music is evocative rather than descriptive. The following melody from the first movement could be leaping waves, a surfer standing up and falling, or a penguin porpoising through the air.

Example 1

The first movement develops from short melodic fragments over muted strings. These fragments are heard later in this movement and also in the fourth movement. A recurring theme appears as the day breaks over the sea.

Example 2

Debussy uses a modal scale for the next theme. This is not one of the medieval church modes but one he invented.

Example 3

The theme introduced by the horns uses almost every pitch from his invented mode.

Example 4

The movement swells, surges and ebbs, passing motifs through the sections. There is a muted climax as a soft brass chorus swells and then dies away.

The middle movement is animated and lively. There are rapid motifs and the orchestration sparkles a bit more. The swirling activity suggests the impending arrival of a big wave, but Debussy reserves the climax for the finale.

The final movement begins ominously as if a storm is brewing. A calm middle section settles things down. The brass theme from the first movement reappears, propelling the motion towards a climatic brass chorale.  Debussy’s La Mer is the very definition of musical impressionism, in which there is no specific program or image, only the impression of one.  As Debussy remarked, “There is no theory. You merely have to listen.”[1]

[1] Debussy on Music. Knopf 1977