La Mer by Debussy

Posted by: btb

La Mer by Debussy - 01/20/13 08:55 AM

20 January 2013
'LA MER' by Claude Debussy
from “The Dent CONCERTGOER’S COMPANION” by Antony Hopkins

Have any of you chaps heard the first movement of La Mer
as sensitively described by Antony Hopkins ... well worth having the blurb in hand while listening to the score ...
(interestingly the impassioned grunts of Toscanini can be heard in the background)

1st Movement 'De l'aube a midi sur la mer'
(duration - 8.05 - Conductor:A.Toscanini )
The movement begins as quietly as possible; harps set up a gentle alternation of adjacent notes
(F#-G#) which are then given a little rhythmic flick by muted cellos.
It scarcely seems important enough to be called a theme but its rhythm is like a signature
which appears a number of times whether the paired notes are rising or falling.
Violas have a slow ascent based on rising fourths which prompts a high shimmer en violins
like the first tentative streak of sunlight in the grey dawn-mist.
The 'rhythmic flick' appears several times in various woodwind instruments; muted trumpet
and cor anglais in unison offer a longer phrase, easily recognised by the five repeated notes
with which it begins.
A long descent through the strings leads to a slightly more animated section in which the
'rising fourths' phrase gathers momentum.
Daylight breaks through as second violins and violas begin a rippling figure which certainly
depicts the surface of the water stirred into motion by a gentle breeze.
Cellos have a continuously reiterated pattern not unlike the one that Mendelssohn uses so
effectively in the 'Hebrides' overture.
Above these repeated wavelets four muted horns have a long melancholy-theme whose modal
scale gives it a hint of plainsong.
Debussy has the habit of throwing fragmentary themes into the score so that as we listen we
may find it difficult to gauge their ultimate importance - a plaintive tune for oboe and solo
cello in unison, a swift rise and fall on a flute that suggests the flight of a bird skimming over
the waves.
But as the strength of the breeze clearly increases, the 'plainsong' theme in the horns becomes
more prominent while glittering figures in the woodwind suggest the white crests of the waves
sparkling in the sun.
There is a momentary lull
Before a remarkable passage for cellos, divided into four parts - Debussy specifies sixteen
players. Their energetic new theme, starting with the 'rhythmic flick' from the introduction,
soon spreads to other sections of the orchestra.
First the woodwind and then, more powerfully , woodwind and horns.
Meanwhile the waves gather force unmistakably as the strings pound out an exciting repetitive
A gradual diminuendo tells us that the wind is losing its edge though the water remains
Cor anglais and trumpet recall the theme from the introduction, the one with five repeated
notes to begin with; skilfully Debussy reintroduces other fragments from the opening pages,
clearly recognisable to us now.
A patch of haze (cor anglais and cello in unison against sustained string harmonies) leads us to
suppose that the movement will end quietly.
But suddenly the mist is dispersed -
7:26 by a glorious blaze of sunlight as the full brass lend their weight to the orchestral mass.
Posted by: btb

Re: La Mer by Debussy - 01/20/13 09:21 AM

This is what the Times music critic had to say about La Mer at it’s London Premiere in 1908 with Debussy himself conducting ...

“For perfect enjoyment of this music there is no attitude of mind more to be recommended than the passive, unintelligent rumination of the typical amateur of the mid-Victorian era.
As long as sleep can actually be avoided, the hearer can derive great pleasure from the strange sounds that enter the ears if he will only put away all idea of definite construction or logical development.”

What a stiff-upper lipped Victorian twat!! ...
and to think that Debussy suffered from seasickness ... and hated the Channel-crossing ...

But more remarkable ...
the masterpiece was composed at Eastbourne, within the sound of the sea.

PS I am prepared to sell my Arturo Toscanini recording of La Mer for an updated estimate of the cost of Buckingham Palace ... not a penny less.
Posted by: bennevis

Re: La Mer by Debussy - 01/20/13 12:38 PM

Wasn't it Erik Satie who said that he particularly liked the bit at a quarter to twelve (11.45 am in new money) in the first movement ('From dawn to midday on the sea')?

Me, I prefer the bit at 11.23 am wink .
Posted by: btb

Re: La Mer by Debussy - 01/21/13 12:26 AM

Thanks for at least replying bennevis ... some of these
mugs appear to be landlocked and never dip a toe in the briny.

And there was I giving those tearful jerks a thumbs down on thought of any music causing a cowboy to blubber ... and there I was listening to the magic of La Mer ... and reaching for my handkerchief to the sound of ...

"But suddenly the mist is dispersed -
7:26 by a glorious blaze of sunlight as the full brass lend their weight to the orchestral mass."
Posted by: BDB

Re: La Mer by Debussy - 01/21/13 12:35 AM

I like the part where the grunion are running.
Posted by: btb

Re: La Mer by Debussy - 01/21/13 01:06 AM

Learnt a new word from BDB ... apparently "grunnion"
(type of sardine) are only found off California ...
I fear the La Mer Eastborne Channel water might prove too cold for the Pacific ocean beasties.
Posted by: BDB

Re: La Mer by Debussy - 01/21/13 01:14 AM

Grunion are uncommon around here, but they do occur in the northern part of the state, and the ocean water here is probably colder than any ocean water around France.
Posted by: btb

Re: La Mer by Debussy - 01/22/13 04:12 AM

Grunions sound like onions under an angry G-force.