2 Jul 2015

Curtain Raiser: Debussy - La Mer

From the collecton Curtain Raiser

"I am trying to do 'something different'- in a way realities- what the imbeciles call `impressionism' is a term which is as poorly used as possible, particularly by art critics."

- Claude Debussy in a letter of March, 1908

Cover of the 1905 edition of Debussy's La Mer. The illustration is based on Hokusai's Wave.

Cover of the 1905 edition of Debussy's La Mer. The illustration is based on Hokusai's Wave. Photo: Public domain

All too often a great work of art is completely misunderstood when it’s first unveiled. And it can take years, sometimes even centuries, before a masterpiece is recognised by the public, and by critics. This was true of Claude Debussy’s La Mer when it was premiered in Paris in 1905.

So what is La Mer? Obviously it’s about 'The Sea', and it’s been described as “the greatest ever symphony by a Frenchman”. But Debussy himself deliberately avoided calling it a symphony. Instead, he gave it a subtitle: Three Symphonic Sketches.

These three pieces are really impressions of the sea… and it's commonplace to link Debussy’s music with the impressionist painters like Cézanne and Monet.

JMW Turner was one of Debussy’s favourite artists and he loved Turner’s moody, atmospheric seascapes. There are undoubtedly strong similarities: the blurring of edges, the depiction of ever-changing light, the idea that even shadows are made up of colours, even multi-layered musical over-painting!

These are all things that we can …‘see’… in La Mer. But we should be careful of taking the comparison too far, because Debussy himself was no fan of the impressionist label. 

It’s not what we call ‘absolute music’, and it’s not ‘programme music’; it’s not telling a story about any people, a ship, or any seafaring mythology; and he’s rejecting literalism in one breath, and impressionism in the next.

It’s a piece that defies definition, but maybe we can say that Debussy’s setting out to ‘paint the sea in sound’.

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