This Week in Music History: Debussy’s La mer premieres (1905)

Classical music has such a long, storied history, that it can be difficult to know where to start. Each week, we’ll be exploring an important event that left its mark. This week? The premiere of an iconic work of French Impressionism: Debussy’s La Mer…


1. From dawn to noon on the sea

The original cover page of Debussy’s score, featuring a reproduction of Hokusai Katsushika’s From The Great Wave off Kanagawa.

Debussy began La mer in August 1903. Buoyed by the success of his opera Pelléas et Mélisande in 1902, the composer decided to embark on a set of “three symphonic sketches” inspired by the sea: his second tripartite work for orchestra, following the Nocturnes of 1899.

When he began La mer, he was in the idyllic French countryside: he and his wife Lilly were spending the summer with her parents in Bichain, a village in Burgundy. But Debussy wrote slowly, and found himself in very different surroundings—though still idyllic ones—when he completed the work some two years later: he reviewed the proofs at the Grand Hotel in Eastbourne, on the English south-east coast. The premiere, given in Paris, was on October 15, 1905.

The first movement, “De l’aube à midi sur la mer” (From dawn to noon on the sea), is a capricious, shimmering, subtle evocation of the sea as the sun shines above.

 

2. Play of the waves

Everything changed during the two years in which he wrote La mer.

On his return from Paris in October 1903, Debussy met the sophisticated, scintillating Emma Bardac. He had lost interest in Lilly, whom he had married four years ago, and was swept away by a new passion. In July 1904, he sent Lilly off to her parents’, and wrote her a letter that suggested—somewhat impressionistically—that he was leaving her. He and Emma went on holiday to Jersey.

Lilly attempted suicide on October 13, 1904, and lived with a bullet lodged in her breast for the rest of her life.

Debussy was well known by this time, and the affair became a huge story in the press, even inspiring a play (Henri Bataille’s La femme nue). With messy divorce proceedings also dragging on—Emma divorced her banker husband as well—the couple headed across the Channel once again in the summer, this time to Eastbourne, for some rest. “It’s a charming, peaceful spot,” Debussy wrote to his publisher. “The sea unfurls itself with an utterly British correctness.”

La mer’s second movement is entitled “Jeu de vagues” (Play of the waves). It ripples and bubbles like the foam of the sea around a ship.

 

3. Dialog of the wind and the sea

La mer’s third movement, “Dialogue du vent et de la mer,” is a climax of crashing waves.

The premiere on October 15, 1905 was no success. There may have been some continuing anti-Debussy sentiment in Paris on account of the scandalous affair. But it is also likely that the piece—very difficult—was badly performed. “I neither hear, nor see, nor feel the sea,” wrote the critic Pierre Lalo.

The composer responded angrily to Lalo, defending his work both as an evocation of the sea, and as a radical composition:

I love the sea and I’ve listened to it with the passionate respect it deserves… The heart of the matter is that you love and defend traditions which, for me, no longer exist… the dust of the past is not always respectable.

Washing off the dust of the past was a talent of Debussy’s. The premiere of La mer took place a year and two days after Lilly’s attempted suicide, and just a week short of six years after their marriage. Emma gave birth to their beloved daughter, Chouchou, later that month.

 


Watch Esa-Pekka Salonen lead the Orchestre de Paris in a full performance of La Mer!

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