"[T]he Ocean doesn't exactly wash the hills of Burgundy," Debussy wrote André Messager as he worked on La Mer. "[I was] intended for the fine career of a sailor and only the chances of life led me away from it…I have still a sincere passion for it." Indeed, his "innumerable memories [are] worth more…than a reality that in general weighs too heavily on one's thought." Those memories included childhood visits to the Atlantic, though he never sailed on it, and to the Mediterranean, where he survived a boat trip in a storm. Cast in three movements with a first movement in sonata form and themes in the first movement repeated in the third, La Mer was the closest he came to writing a symphony and represented a peak in his development.
"From Dawn to Noon at Sea" begins in the depths of the ocean. Waves stir; the sun begins to rise, and a theme emerges from the English horn and muted trumpet. More waves roll in the strings, then in the flute and clarinet over rocking cellos. Glints of sunlight flicker from the harp. Sirenic horns call out over flashing waves, and a climax is reached with three big, Eastern sounding chords depicting gigantic waves. A new idea surfaces in the cellos. The sea turns calm but for a few waves skittering along the surface in the high strings only to dissipate in the distance. The opening theme returns in the trumpet, and a haunting call from the English horn calls for one of those great moments of Debussian silence. Suddenly, the depths stir. Flutes glitter in the sunshine, the horns intone a hymn of celebration, and the sun reaches its apex in a grand vista of the ocean at noon.
"The Waves at Play" is an interlude of sprightly waves in the form of different instruments darting about on a summer day. Its three beats to the bar gives it a feeling of a lively waltz.
"Dialogue between the Wind and the Sea" summons God and Man, and with them an air of menace and space. Its orchestration, more overt and powerful than in the first movement, helped dispel the notion that Debussy's music was, as expressed at the time, effeminate and decadent. It recalls two themes from the first movement but is less a narrative and more a tableau of scenes and effects. The opening is a rush to the surface in the cellos, their progress halted by a stern English horn. A theme from the first movement returns but sounds more ominous. The sea is wilder, tougher, and stormier now, as well as darker and more brisk and mercurial in its moods. The whole-tone scale is more prominent, as are many ocean effects, e.g., deep, globular sounds in the low strings, skipping waves in the violins, etc. A broad theme sings in the woodwinds over heaving strings. After a huge climax, trumpets, horns, then trombones tumble and disappear into the waves. Calm returns briefly before the sea becomes frenetic with skittish rhythms in the trumpets and wild calls from muted cornets. The broad woodwind theme returns and evolves into the horn chorale from the first movement, now sung powerfully by the trombones, leading to a glorious climax.
Copyright © 2008 by Roger Hecht.