Length: c. 23 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 cornets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, glockenspiel, tam-tam, triangle), 2 harps, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: February 27, 1925, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting
Debussy’s La mer is a unique mix of tone poem and symphony, a three-movement impression of the ocean. As the idea took shape in his mind, Debussy wrote to a friend in September 1903 that “I was destined for the fine career of a sailor,” and that “only the accidents of life put me on another path.” He acknowledged that a musical work about the ocean “could turn out to be like a studio landscape,” but concluded that “I have countless reminiscences. This matters more, in my opinion, than a reality.”
Debussy was decidedly not interested in pictorialism or program music. Indeed, only a few months earlier, in a concert review for a Paris newspaper, he had written that the popularity of Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony “rests on the common and mutual misunderstanding that exists between man and nature.” Debussy wrote that the bird calls in that symphony were “more like the art of M. de Vaucauson [an 18th-century creator of a famous mechanical duck] than drawn from nature’s book. All such imitations are in the end useless — purely arbitrary interpretations.” In other places, he wrote, the “Pastoral” succeeded “simply because there is no attempt at direct imitation, but rather at capturing the invisible sentiments of nature.”
If Debussy thought that Beethoven could not pull off an imitation of nature in music, he certainly was not about to try it himself. The determination to depict the ocean generally rather than specifically led to changes in titles. In a 1903 letter to his publisher, Debussy proposed “The Sea; Three symphonic sketches for orchestra: I. Beautiful sea by the bloodthirsty islands. II. Play of the waves. III. The wind makes the sea dance.” By the time Debussy finished La mer in March 1905, he had changed the title of the first movement to “From dawn to midday on the sea,” and that of the last movement to “Dialogue of the wind and the sea.” The original title of the first movement was the title of a short story by Camille Mauclair. Though Debussy liked the contrast between beauty and blood-thirst, he gave it up, probably because using Mauclair’s title might give the idea that the music tracked the story.
The three movements have a similar feel, perhaps because some similar building blocks went into them. The first thing heard above the quietly droning basses is a rising progression built on the whole tones, fourths, and fifths, and using the rhythmic figure of a short note on the downbeat moving to a much longer one. Fourths and fifths stacked on each other have a strong, forthright quality (they are the key elements of fanfares) but also a sort of blankness (the open strings of violins, violas, and cellos are tuned in fifths, those of double basses and guitars are in fourths). The fourth and fifths recur throughout the work without calling much attention to themselves, since they are such a fundamental part of tonal music, but they bring an elemental quality to the music, as if conveying something wide and open and vast – the ocean, for example. The short-long rhythmic figure is easier to pick out, and conveys a sense of poignancy in places and sheer power in others, as when the brass thunder it out at the end of the first movement.
— Howard Posner