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However problematic the label “impressionistic” is for the music of Claude Debussy, it does serve to highlight a crucial moment in the relationship between music and the other arts. After a century in which the Romantics celebrated music as the highest form of artistic expression, writers and painters began to free themselves from the ties to concrete reality that had seemed so limiting next to music’s ineffable, abstract qualities. Their resultant breakthroughs inspired composers, most fruitfully Debussy, to think about the materials of their art in new and previously unimaginable ways. Specific visual inspiration for the 1905 orchestral triptych La mer came, ironically, from the earlier generation of painters: Joseph Turner (1775-1851), whom Debussy lauded as the “finest creator of mystery in art,” and Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), whose “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa” print was the composer’s choice to adorn the title page of the score. Debussy’s own life experience provided an emotional canvas; he had thought at one point to become a sailor and kept a lifelong attachment to “my old friend, the sea; it is always endless and beautiful. It is really the thing in nature which best puts you in your place.”

Among the artists’ innovations was the use of color as an end in itself, and among the most influential legacies of Debussy was the use of musical color as an end in itself. The most obvious way Debussy achieves his sonorities is by augmenting the standard orchestra with some glitter: two harps and a large percussion section. But other musical elements also become agents of color. Harmonic changes serve as color washes; chords dissolve rather than resolve. Short melodic motives rather than fully developed themes sparkle in brief solos, substituting timbre and movement for narrative coherence.

Throughout the first movement, “From Dawn to Noon on the Sea,” motives interplay with quick timbral changes to suggest the sea’s dual nature: ever-changing on the surface but with an underlying eternal and static quality. The opening wavelike figure gradually accelerates; several thematic gestures emerge as the sea awakens, then subsides as a brass chorale suggests the ocean’s depths. “Play of the Waves” functions as a symphonic scherzo, its evanescent interaction of timbre, non-Western scales, and cross-rhythms portraying the unsettled nature of the waves that dance, break apart, and come back together. As its title suggests, “Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea” offers more traditional thematic interchange, enhanced by the return of material from the first movement; this thematic repetition gives the piece a sense of settling down. There is an especially delicious effect when a solo trumpet rises above the fray momentarily, only to be reabsorbed into the orchestra. The ending washes over us with forceful dissonance, leaving the sensation Debussy identified of being “in your place.”  

— Susan Key