Debussy's La Mer
An Atmospheric Nature Painting

The Debussy La Mer is a shimmering musical sketch inspired by the sea. The piece's ethereal sound-scapes and impressionistic moods were groundbreaking.

It's an incredible experience: an atmosphere of nature-inspired shades, moods, and colors.

These sensual qualities are what Debussy's music is all about, and La Mer is a perfect example.

The Three Movements
Good Recordings

The Debussy La Mer has the subtitle Trois esquisses symphoniques ("Three symphonic sketches").

But Debussy didn't give any kind of symphonic structure to La Mer. It's more of a series of spontaneous fragments of music hung together to create an exquisite and mysterious world of beauty.

Debussy actually ignored pretty much all of the old rules about proper music-writing in La Mer.

He used his own glowing harmonies which broke basic music tradition, and used the orchestra as a breathtaking canvas of luxurious nuances.

Debussy began writing it in 1903 in Burgundy (which isn't near the sea at all!), and the new work premiered in Paris in 1905.

As usual, the listeners' and critics' opinions were mixed. Debussy claimed that the rehearsal was no good, which was probably part of it.

But Debussy had also recently left his doting wife, who subsequently shot herself, for another woman. Parisian society was furious about this, which definitely tainted their view of Debussy's La Mer.

Most of the critics in France liked how colorful and enchanting the piece was, but American critics weren't as impressed. One thought the name Mal de Mer ("Seasick") was a better description of the piece!

Debussy La Mer was inspired by the oriental stylization of nature, such as in Hokusai's 'The Hollow of the Wave off Kanagawa'

The Movements

The Debussy La Mer has three movements:

  1. De l'aube a midi sur la mer ("From dawn to noon on the sea"). The first movement begins with floating colors, and moves through dozens of small images.

    The listener's imagination is free to illustrate the music, which wanders around, never settling. It just exists (like the sea itself, I suppose!). The composer Erik Satie joked that he liked the part at 11:15am. Very clever!

  2. Jeux de vagues ("Play of the waves"). The second movement is livelier, and uses repeated orchestral swells with just about every combination of instrument you can think of. Again, the listener's imagination can roam around the mysterious textures.
  3. Dialogue du vent et de la mer ("Dialogue of the wind and the sea"). This is the most dramatic movement yet. The title hints that the music is about the forces of wind and ocean clashing.

Really, the entire Debussy La Mer evokes moods and feelings, and isn't meant to follow any kind of story.

The movements are extraordinary musical paintings, hanging in space. You have to enjoy them as sensual experiences (like a fine wine), without thinking too much.

Click to listen to and explore Debussy's dreamlike piano favorite, the Suite Bergamesque

Good Recordings

The conductor Arturo Toscanini actually knew Debussy and got him to make some changes to the score of La Mer.

I think that this special connection with the composer gives his interpretations a unique authenticity. He has a few studio recordings, but I've heard that his live recordings are even better.

Toscanini - La Mer

Probably my favorite interpreter of this piece is Claudio Abbado. He somehow manages to get the piece to sound exactly how I think it should sound.

A good recording to get would be the 2003 Abbado/Lucerne Festival Orchestra performance, which is rich and atmospheric. It's on on Deutsche Grammophon.

Just to show you what I love about Abbado's conducting of this piece, here he is in a passionate and sweeping live recording, with an unknown orchestra (does anybody know which one?).

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