Composed by

Claude Debussy (Aug 1862 – Mar 1918) between 1903 and 1905

Duration

Approx. 23 mins

Instrumentation

2 flutes (doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, 3 bassoons (doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets and 2 cornets, 3 trombones and tuba, timpani, cymbals, tam-tam, triangle, glockenspiel, bass drum, two harps, and strings.

Claude Debussy’s most brilliant orchestral work, La Mer, is one of the greatest achievements in the orchestral literature. It is a work of such imagination that it stands apart from traditions and influences, and its modernity can still be felt today.

Debussy truly had the ability to see images with an Impressionist’s eye, working with the color and mass of instrumental combinations much as a painter works with pigments, and Munch does wonders with the musical palette of La Mer.

Debussy took inspiration not from the rolling waves of the Pacific or the Atlantic, but from the rather more unlikely locale of Eastbourne on the south coast of England. He finished composing the work’s three movements there in 1905, saying that he found more inspiration in paintings of the sea than being near the sea itself. He caught its moods in all their richness. He subtitled La Mer “Three Symphonic Sketches” and the names of the movements stimulates our own sense of imagery.

First movement: “From Dawn To Midday On The Sea” explores the sometimes subtle, sometimes dramatic changes of atmosphere and lighting that accompany the progress of morning on the water.

Second movement – “Play Of Waves” draws the imagination to the spheres of light and motion. One senses the rocking of the waves, the unexpected shifts of current, the iridescent glint of sunlight on the surface of the water and the mysterious depths teeming with life.

Third movement – “Dialog Of The Wind And The Sea” is at once ominous and urgent: One feels close to the sea’s danger, as the orchestra heaves and swells in great washes of sound. A moment of suspenseful calm is reached before a great, final buildup shows the sea in stormy triumph, dazzling and full of elemental force.

Claude Debussy

  1. Came from a non-musical family: his father owned a china shop, and his mother was a seamstress.
  2. Started his studies at the Paris Conservatoire at 10. 
  3. Never placed higher than fourth in any piano competitions.
  4. Started the modern period of classical music.
  5. La mer wasn’t well received at first , after Debussy caused outrage by leaving his wife. 
Claude Debussy
photo credit: Wikipedia

RECOMMENDED RECORDING

BERLINER PHILHARMONIKER
Conductor: Claudio Abbado

Performed on 24 May 2009