La Mer - An introduction

From La Mer's groundbreaking new compositional techniques to the turmoil of Debussy's private life, Andrew Mellor delves into this wild and fantastical masterpiece of musical impressionism.

Why the name?

That’s an easy one. This masterpiece does what it says in its title - it describes the sea (or 'la mer' in French). But Debussy might as well have given his orchestral painting an English name, given that he put the finishing touches to it while gazing from the window of a British coastal hotel in Eastbourne!

When La Mer was first performed in 1905 by a large orchestra (given depth by four bassoons and colour from two harps, a tam-tam and a glockenspiel), many Parisians saw the straightforward title and expected a description of the sea like the one they'd heard in Debussy’s turn of the century opera Pelléas et Melisande.

What they got was a full advancing of the revolutionary compositional techniques Debussy had first explored 12 years earlier in his Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune.

Debussy: La Mer

Recorded 1978

Claude Debussy La Mer 1. From Dawn Till Noon On The Sea (De l'aube à midi sur la mer) Orchestre de Paris, Daniel Barenboim

Debussy: La Mer

Recorded 1964

Claude Debussy La Mer 2. Play Of The Waves (Jeux de vagues) Berliner Philharmoniker, Herbert von Karajan

Debussy: La Mer

Recorded 2003 (Live)

Claude Debussy La Mer 3. Dialogue Of The Wind And The Sea (Dialogue du vent et de la mer) Lucerne Festival Orchestra, Claudio Abbado

Need to know

La Mer saw Debussy develop the musical language that would come to be known as musical ‘impressionism.’ In Debussy’s eyes, Romanticism had been exhausted. As an alternative, he developed a language of implication and suggestion that was influenced by the work of impressionist painters, who used short, built-up brush strokes and multiple colours that left narrative detail to the imagination of the observer while conjuring a new sense of light and movement. Debussy’s orchestra became a medium for exoticism, beauty and colour.

La Mer consists of three symphonic sketches, each a series of elusive episodes and superimposed patterns that encompass a huge descriptive range: 'From Dawn to Noon on the Sea' ('I particularly liked the bit at quarter to eleven' joked Erik Satie after the premiere); 'Play of Waves' and 'Dialogue of the wind and the sea'. The middle of the three sketches is perhaps the most obviously ‘impressionistic’: a world of surface spray and fragmentary happenings akin to those of a Monet canvas.

Debussy was not in good shape when he was working on La Mer. The composer had walked away from his former life, leaving his wife for the singer Emma Bardac and in doing so, losing almost all of his friends. There are numerous occasions in La Mer where Debussy appears to pit a single motif – perhaps a wave or a sea bird – against the churning, cruel ocean. A picture, perhaps, of the composer’s feelings of isolation as he battled the tide of public opinion?

Where have I heard it before?

That’s a hard one: even the sharpest of ears probably couldn’t pick out much in the way of a signature ‘tune’ in La Mer, given its structure of superimpositions. But there’s an outside chance you’ve heard it as sampled by the Norwegian electronic composer Biosphere in the track 'Shenzhou'.

Can I play it?

With difficulty! The best way to play La Mer is to join a high-quality orchestra. There are a few arrangements for piano with four hands – one by Debussy himself – but you’ll need to lighten those fingers, get your technique up to scratch, and find an equally talented friend if you want to brave it. If you're a string player, you may be interested to learn that there's a piano trio arrangement of the work by Sally Beamish, commissioned by Trio Apaches in 2013.