Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Debussy by the Sea

This weekend, the Harrisburg Symphony, conducted by Stuart Malina, performs Claude Debussy’s La Mer, three symphonic studies depicting the sea at various times of the day.

The program also includes other evocative works by Alan Hovhaness - his Mysterious Mountain - and Samuel Barber's nostalgic setting of life in Knoxville: Summer of 1915, plus Maurice Ravel's exotic Shéhérazade, tales from the 1001 Arabian Nights (don't worry, there are only three tales).

The S.S. Malina sets sail Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm from the Forum in downtown Harrisburg, with a pre-concert talk given by Assistant Conductor Tara Simoncic an hour before each departure.

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Visiting the wild coasts of French Brittany in his youth, the novelist Marcel Proust wrote of the sea at his mythical Balbec:

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[With the radiant sun upon the waves] that leapt up one behind the other like jumpers on a trampoline… the snowy crests of its emerald green waves, here and there polished and translucent, which with a placid violence and a leonine frown, to which the sun added a faceless smile, allowed their crumbling slopes to topple down at last, [one morning it was a] transparent, vaporous bluish distance, like the glaciers that one sees in the background of the Tuscan Primitives. On other mornings… the sun laughed upon a water of a green as tender as that preserved in Alpine pastures… less by the moisture of the soil than by the liquid mobility of the light… It is above all the light, the light that displaces and situates the undulations of the sea, [with the sun’s] tremulous golden shaft scorching the seas topaz-yellow, fermenting it, turning it pale and milky like beer, frothy like milk… as if some god were shifting it to and fro by moving a mirror in the sky. [I was] impatient to know what Sea it was playing that morning by the shore, for none of these Seas ever stayed with us longer than a day. The next day there would be another, which sometimes resembled its predecessor. I never saw the same one twice.
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Proust was not the only author ever to be captivated by the limitless and changeable sea, nor was Debussy the only composer to come under its spell, but Proust, writing of his experiences with the sea along the English Channel coast in the 1880s, seems like a reasonable introduction to the music Debussy composed, having spent some of that time along the English Channel coast in 1904 (for the record, Proust’s Balbec – in reality, Cabourg – is south of the Siene; Debussy’s Pourville, near Dieppe, is north of it.

Debussy composed his musical portrait of the sea between 1903 and 1905 (he may have started some sketches in 1902). He began working on it in the town of Bichain which is actually far inland, perhaps a hundred miles southeast of Paris toward Switzerland, in the historic region of Burgundy. But much of the time he was working on it, he was staying in Pourville (see photograph of Debussy taken that summer in Pourville, though not looking out toward the sea).

Finishing it March, 1905, he spends the month of August on the English side of the Channel, at Eastbourne, and on August 7th he is correcting the publisher’s proofs in advance of the October premiere in Paris.

La Mer may be the longest orchestral work by Debussy, the closest thing we have to a symphony by him, but a symphony in all its Germanic essence would be antithetical to Debussy’s aesthetic. He subtitled it “Three Symphonic Sketches for Orchestra,” a suite, basically, the symphonic in this case referring less to the extended ‘development’ of ideas usually associated with a symphony.

The first movement is entitled “From dawn to mid-day on the sea,” and the final movement is the “Dialogue of the wind and the sea.” These are comparable to the substantial outer movements one might find in a symphony. The middle movement is a light, scherzo-like movement, almost a waltz, entitled “Play of the waves.”

But Debussy is not concerned about themes and developments and modulations and harmonic schemes like Beethoven would be – even though most of the material evolves out of the primal intervals – the perfect 5th – that open the work, a kind of reverse-Beethoven’s 9th, in a way, but just as cosmic (or, perhaps, oceanic).

As marine biologist and conservationist Rachel Carson noted, like the sea itself, the surface of Debussy's music hints at the brooding mystery of its depths, and ultimately the profound enigma of life itself – after all, mankind carries the primordial salt of the sea in our blood.

Here is Riccardo Muti conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in this 1994 video recording. (The work is complete in one clip.)

(please ignore the fact the poster from Japan refers to it as La Mar...)

Debussy was a very visually oriented composer. Many of his works are small musical miniatures with evocative titles – think of “Claire de Lune” (Moonlight) or “Girl with the Flaxen Hair.” In fact, there are series of short works simply called “Images.” His studio was full of prints of paintings or those postcard-like souvenirs one might find at a museum – images which, given the vagueness of his harmonic style and almost anti-melodic approach to sound earned him the title “Impressionist.”

Usually, we tend to think of “Impressionism” in painting as soft and flexible, playing more with light than substance. This is easy to induce musically by the use of non-traditional scales, especially the whole-tone scale which has no harmonic function we associate with tonality, especially the strong functions of chord progressions like the dominant to the tonic resolution that gives it a satisfying, structural coherence. In several works by Debussy – think Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun or, again, “Claire de Lune” – the harmonic vagueness is matched by softer dynamics and even though there are climaxes, they are almost understated.

This is not the style in La Mer. This is at times very muscular music even though it may lack the harmonic bite some feel longer forms need to create forward motion. “Motion” here is like the motion of the sea, as Proust described it in the quote from “In Search of Lost Time” at the beginning of this post, vibrant and colorful – above all, colorful. This is not the French equivalent, sitting on the beach looking out across the sand, of the English pastoral school derided as the “Cow-Looking-Over-the-Fence” school of music.

In fact, Debussy would probably have had little patience with this "soft" approach to music: as a music critic, a career he followed briefly in the few years before he composed La Mer, he reviewed a work by Frederick Delius (usually considered an English Impressionist) as "very sweet, very pale - music to soothe convalescents in well-to-do neighborhoods."

And La Mer is anything but soft, sweet or pale.

Debussy may focus less on melody as he is on the “tracery and ornamenting” of a line much in the way Bach, that most German of composers, might have done, with a grace and suppleness both melodically and harmonically of his beloved Chopin (his first piano teacher was a big fan if not officially a student of Chopin’s). Debussy was just as influenced by the stylization of nature as seen in the landscape prints from Japan, particularly Hokusai whose “The Hollow of the Wave off Kanagawa” which he had in his studio and which adorned the first printed edition of Debussy’s score. But he was also influenced by the “infinite arabesques” and complex counterpoint of the Javanese gamelan, a unique and exotic sound-world he first heard in 1889 at the Universal Exposition in Paris.

Other influences, perhaps surprisingly, come from Russian composers at a time when Russian music was little known in Western Europe, especially Mussorgsky and his opera, Boris Godunoff, especially his spontaneity and freedom from traditional academic formulas (which caused many to consider Mussorgsky untrained or untrainable and even led his friends, like Rimsky-Korsakoff, to “clean up” many of his scores). He described these as “successive minute touches mysteriously linked together by means of an instinctive clairvoyance.”

In one of those serendipitous moments in music history, I love pointing out the one degree of separation between Tchaikovsky and Debussy – Nadezhda von Meck was a wealthy widow who was not only Tchaikovsky’s generous patron and musical confidant, she hired some musicians to form a piano trio when she visited Paris and traveled with them, taking them back to Moscow for two years where they lived in her house and played music for her and her friends. The pianist – whose additional responsibilities involved playing piano duets with her and giving her daughters lessons – was Claude Debussy.

He was 18.

While in Moscow, young Debussy would have been exposed to a great deal of Russian music, no doubt, though I’ve never read anything he has said about, for instance, seeing Boris Godunoff. Still, knowing that Mussorgsky’s opera didn’t make it to Paris until Diaghilev’s Russian Season in 1908, how else can you explain so many “revolutionary” concepts heard in Debussy’s opera, Pelleas et Melsiande which he began work on certainly by 1892 and which was premiered in 1902?

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Here is a chronological time-line of events in Debussy’s life during the time he was composing La Mer.

Some biographical background, first: Debussy married a poor seamstress named Rosalie (“Lily”) Texier in 1899, after having had a series of mistresses. Only five years later, in 1904, Debussy was already living with Emma Bardac, the wife of a wealthy banker who had earlier had an affair with Gabriel Fauré and whose daughter, Helene, was the inspiration for Fauré’s “Dolly Suite.”

But life sometimes gets messy and Lily did not take well to the idea of a divorce. In fact, in October of 1904, Lily attempted suicide by shooting herself in the stomach, and as the details became public, most of Debussy’s friends withdrew from him. In fact, much of the reaction against La Mer when it was premiered a year later had as much to do with the public’s distaste for the scandal as it did with its confusion over the music.

All of this, of course, is going on in the “background” while Debussy is composing La Mer (or is it the other way around?).

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In June, Debussy writes his last article as a music critic and in July signs a contract with the publisher Durand for a set of Images for piano, including three pieces for two pianos which, in 1908, becomes the Images pour orchestre.

Between July 10th and October 1st, Debussy stays at Bichain (in Bourgogne, about a hundred miles southeast of Paris), his third visit there. During this holiday, he begins work on La Mer and completes the piano pieces Estampes and works on preparing the full score of Pelleas et Melisande for publication (the opera was premiered in April, 1902).

October 14th, he signs a contract with Durand for a second opera, Diable dans le beffroi (The Devil in the Belfry), inspired by a story by Edgar Allan Poe which he thinks he will finish in May, 1905 (he never does).

November 15th, his “Prelude to ‘The Afternoon of a Faun’” (completed in 1894) is programmed on two separate concerts in Paris.


On January 9th, Ricardo Viñes premieres Estampes and on the 16th, Debussy accompanies a singer in the first performance of two songs, including one called La Mer.

During April and May, Debussy composes his “Two Dances for Chromatic Harp and Orchestra,” the Danse sacrée and the Danse profane.

Between August and mid-October, Debussy and his mistress Emma Bardac (the wife of a wealthy banker) stay in cognito at the Grand Hotel in Jersey, then goes on to Pourville on the Normandy Coast (see photo), working on La Mer and correcting proofs for the publication of Masques and Fêtes galantes, also reworks L’Isle joyeuse.

On the 13th of October, Debussy’s wife, Lily, attempts to commit suicide by shooting herself in the stomach. The news appears in the papers on November 4th and many of Debussy’s friends withdraw from him.


On March 5th, 1905, he completes the first draft of the score of La Mer and it will be published in July, made available to the public in November with its brightly colored cover after the Japanese artist, Hokusai (see photo).

On May 4th, Emma Bardac divorces her husband Sigismond; she is a few weeks pregnant.

In June, Debussy publishes Suite bergamasque for piano with its famous slow movement, Claire de lune. The work was composed in 1890 but Debussy did not finish it for publication until this time.

On July 17th, Debussy signs an exclusive contract with his new publisher, Durand and is also placed under a court injunction to pay Lily a month income of 400 francs (which will be paid through his publisher).

From the end of July through the end of August, Debussy and Emma Bardac stay in Eastbourne, England, spending a few days in London before returning to Paris.

On August 2nd, the Civil Court pronounces the divorce of Claude and Lily Debussy. He figures he has, perhaps, two friends left.

On August 7th, he is correcting the first proofs of La Mer

On October 15th, La Mer is premiered at Concerts lamoureux with conductor Camille Chevillard. Debussy complains that the orchestra is under-rehearsed and the conductor is more fit to tame wild beasts than conduct musicians. The next performance, on October 22nd, is better received.

On October 30th, Emma Bardac gives birth to Debussy’s daughter, Claude-Emma, always known as “Chouchou”.

--- Dick Strawser
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The quotation from Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, now usually more accurately translated as In Search of Lost Time, is from the second of seven volumes, ”Within a Budding Grove” or ”In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower”, in the chapter “Place-Names: The Place,” translated by Scott-Moncrief and Kilmartin, published by Random House

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