Work: La mer
About This Work
Debussy's La Mer (The Sea; 1903-1905) is one of the most famous non-symphonic orchestral pieces ever written. During the 1890s, oceanic imagery had proven a recurrent source of inspiration for the composer. Sirènes, the third of the Nocturnes
(1897-1999), and passages from the opera Pelléas et Mélisande (1893-1905) at once bear testament to a certain nautical bent. La Mer, however, goes a great deal farther than any previous work -- by Debussy or any other composer -- in capturing the raw essence of this most evocative of nature's faces. La Mer is no mere exercise in musical scene-painting, but rather a sonic representation of the myriad thoughts, moods, and basic instinctual reactions the sea draws from an individual human soul.
La Mer comprises three distinct movements: "De l'aube à midi sur la mer" (From Dawn to Noon on the Sea), "Jeux de vagues" (The Play of the Waves), and "Dialogue du vent et de la mer" (Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea). "De l'aube à midi sur la mer" unfolds in 6/8 following a Trés lent (very slow) introduction. As in so much of the composer's mature music, it is not always possible to draw a clear distinction between thematic material and accompaniment and texture. Indeed, texture itself is often paramount in Debussy's music; what few glimpses of discreet melodies the movement affords (such as the glassy violin solo that arrives some sixty bars into the piece, or the brief horn gesture soon after the metric change to 6/8) are soon subsumed into the complex orchestral fabric. There are passages during which the rhythmic and metric scheme is obscured, perhaps intentionally so, by as many as six or seven different layers of simultaneous activity. The movement ends with one of the most striking of the composer's musical affirmations: In an enigmatic gesture, the final forte-fortissimo brass attack dies away to piano as the movement draws to a close.
The scoring of "Jeux de vagues" is, on the whole, more austere than that of the first movement. Frequent trills and bursts of rhythmic vitality vividly bring to life the movement's frolicsome, unpredictable subject matter, while the extremely quiet ending purposely fails to resolve any of the musical expectations set out in the preceding, more active sections. The scoring of this passage (solo flute and harp harmonics) recalls the identical orchestration as used by the composer at the end of Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun; 1894), Indeed, these parallel passages are quite similiar in dramatic purpose.
The final "Dialogue" is a tumultuous juxtaposition of an urgent, articulated rhythmic gesture -- first introduced pianissimo by the cellos and basses and ingeniously manipulated throughout the movement -- with a grandiose legato idea that many have likened to the melodies of César Franck (an important influence upon the young Debussy). A sustained forte-fortissimo brings this violent, elemental work to a powerful close.
-- Blair Johnston, All Music Guide
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