Waves of Sound: Debussy's La Mer
Last week, August 22nd, Claude Debussy would have turned 150. This is the third of a serioes of OTF posts dedicated to some of Debussy's works. After art songs, and Pelléas et Mélisande, here is his most famous orchestral piece.
Ah, La mer...
OK, not that Trenet standard, the other one.
Claude Debussy's La Mer is one of the most famous orchestral pieces that isn't a symphony ever written. It is probably his most concentrated and brilliant orchestral work, and is one of the supreme achievements in the symphonic literature. It is a work of such imagination that it stands apart from traditions and influences, and its modernity can still be felt today, more than 100 years after it was first composed.
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.
The work was started in 1903 in France and completed in 1905 on the English Channel coast in Eastbourne. The sea Debussy knew, from his childhood visits to Cannes and later travels in Italy, was the Mediterranean. It's a civilized sea, and Debussy caught its moods in all their richness. He subtitled La Mer "Three Symphonic Sketches," and the names of the movements provide us with verbal suggestions to stimulate our own sense of imagery.
"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.
"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.
"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.
To get a further glimpse into Debussy's musical artistry, the title of Debussy's D'un cahier d'esquisses (From a Notebook of Esquisses; 1903) aptly describes the work's origin as a sketch for La mer. The work is quietly ethereal and highly original; at the same time, it presents a mixture of styles and ideas that prevent a cohesive effect (unsurprising, perhaps, given its purpose). Though rarely played, it survives as an exquisite novelty and provides a glimpse into the creation of one of the composer's best-known works.
The recording is a piano roll recording made by Debussy for Welte in 1913 (just three years after the work was composed). The piano rolls for Welte are amongst the most accurate we have, conveying the original performed dynamics, attack and pedalling rather faithfully, and when a good roll is played on a properly conditioned piano, the problems of dubious rhythmic bumpiness which infect many roll playbacks can vanish. This rendition seems as fine as we could hope for.
My favourite versions
For today's comparison, I have retained three versions in my personal music collection, two of which are available for you to sample openly. The first version I retained is the oft-reissued recording by Croatian conductor Milan Horvat and the Austrian Radio Symphony orchestra - later rebranded the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra. Horvat was the orchestra's founding chief consuctor (1969-75). The performance is embedded in my Friday montage of August 17th, The Sea and the Beach:
In the early 1980's, I was shopping at a nearby record store, and they had a bargain bin of vinyl reissues from an Italian series "I Grandi Concerti" - I suspect they were bargain-priced because the notes were exclusively in Italian and not in French or English. This is where I acquired this great 1963 recording of La Mer by Carlo Maria Giulini and the Philharmonia Orchestra:
I have other excellent recordings in my collection: Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony is one of them. However, for my money, this is outdone by Montreal's "other" orchestra under their young gun conductor.
The Orchestre Métropolitain du Grand Montréal is about 3/4 the size of its more well-known cousin, which means the orchestra starts off short of the large assets required to pull off this work... or does it? Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts his orchestra with a firm beat and a keen ear for Debussy's intricate orchestral writing. He manages to draw the listener into his reading of La Mer, impeccably engineered by the ATMA sound team, which is approached with a cunning mix of intensity and intimacy. The below ATMA link provides streaming excerpts:
WHat are your favourites?
August 31st, 2012, "I Think You Will Love This Music Too" will feature a new podcast "Concluding the Beethoven Project" at its Pod-O-Matic Channel. Read more August 31 on the ITYWLTMT Blogspot blog.