Debussy – La Mer – Three Symphonic Sketches

by Max Derrickson

Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918)

La Mer – Three Symphonic Sketches
1. De l’aube a midi sur la mer (Tres lent) (From dawn to noon on the sea)
2. Jeux de vagues (Allegro – dans un rythme tres souple) (Play of waves)
3. Dialogue du vent et de la mer (Anime et tumultueux)  (Dialogue of the wind and the sea)


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The very idea of writing a work called The Sea gives one some idea of what to expect. The subtitles to the movements lead us even further: From dawn to noon on the sea, Play of waves, and Dialogue of the wind and the sea. La Mer is the most accessible of Debussy’s important orchestral works, and the only one to retain links with conventional structural forms, in that he called them “sketches” and they follow roughly the thematic intent of their titles. But the work reflects Debussy’s musical Impressionism, the school of which he was the undisputed champion. Pedal points over which thick chords grow and melt, whole-tone scales and melodies, transparencies and effects, glimmers of musical ideas flashing before our ears—all these techniques help achieve the expressive “freedom” for which Debussy strove. In La Mer he cradles the listener between memory and reality, distance and presence. While he uses different compositional approaches for each of the movements, all are thematically organic to each other and the impression of the sea.

The first movement is a collection of vignettes of the sea in its vastness.    [. . .]

The last movement is, as its subtitle suggests, a dialogue. This is a dialogue not only of musical motifs but also compositionally between musical spontaneity and cohesion of the whole. In its orchestration Debussy gives us some of his most charming and exotic colors, such as the passage for celeste, a toy piano that sounds like bells, reminiscent of a playful breeze. And he gives some of his most powerful moments, like the stuttering trumpets whirling amidst the orchestra’s sea-surge that climaxes to the ending. This emphatic ending is also unusual for Debussy, as his works normally bid a quiet farewell. The movement’s style of continually renewing moments anticipates Debussy’s last great orchestral work, Jeux, which would set the tone for the next generation of French composers.

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