Debussy’s La Mer (The Sea)
Notes by TŌN harpist Taylor Ann Fleshman
The turn of the 20th century was a profound and transformative era in the development of Western European Classical music. In the age of “-isms,” composers were looking for new ways to advance the development of classical music away from the Romantic Era and into a new future. Composers like Igor Stravinsky sought inspiration from Classical and Baroque form with Neoclassicism, while composers like Arnold Schoenberg sought inspiration from our deep and suppressed subconscious to develop Expressionism. With some of these new ideologies being regional, one such school that developed in France was Impressionism. Impressionism strives to express an experience rather than to achieve a perfectly accurate representation. One such parallel in the visual art world was Claude Monet and his Water Lilies series, which through distorted shapes and colors gave the viewer an impressionistic landscape as opposed to a highly realistic creation.
While Monet was painting his iconic works, French composer Claude Debussy was composing his impressionist work La Mer. Translating to “The Sea,” the three-movement work seeks to capture the essence of contrasting seascapes. The first movement, “From Dawn to Midday on the Sea,” begins in a mysterious manner but increases in intensity, eliciting a feeling of radiant ambience near the end of the movement. The second movement, “Play of the Waves,” suggests the motion of rocking back and forth through the use of musical conversation between various instruments; and the third, “Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea,” evokes imagery of powerful forces interacting. While the titles are visually suggestive, there is no definitive program to the music. Rather, the music suggests three different musical scenes that are up to the listener to interpret. Debussy does not try to reach a goal, climax, or a particular key. His music merely exists.
Hear Your Own Story
In addition to his exceptional harp writing, I personally enjoy this work because Debussy presents sounds that allow me, the listener, to hear my own story. He gives me a canvas, and I get to visualize my own painting.