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Claude Achille Debussy - La Mer, Trois Esquisses Symphoniques

( Originally Published 1935 )

("The Sea," Three Symphonic Sketches)

I. "De Paube a midi sur la Mer" ("Frorn Dawn till Noon on the Ocean")

II. "Jeux de Vagues" ("Play of the Waves")

III. "Dialogue du Vent et de la Mer" ("Dialogue of Wind and Sea")

There is, there always must be, a dividing line between the illimitable designs of nature and the necessarily established confines of any art. In music a point of nearest fusion between man's symbols and nature's designs seems to have been reached in Debussy's extraordinary symphonic sketches of the sea.

This music, in some respects the product of the most finished art, is in others the reflection of the inner and sensuous existence. That is an existence much older and in many respects of a profounder wisdom than the one of the conscious intellect. Debussy's perception of the sea has the natural clairvoyance of instincts as fresh as those of art animal, combined with the subtlety of the ancient culture of which this composer's art is a flower. One hearkens to the eternal ebb and flow of the waters, with their capricious swirlings, and whisperings, and treacherous calm, and inhuman play. There are reflected the constantly changing lights and colors of sea and sky. To it all there is no beginning and end, and no human story, no moral, no philosophy--only the enigmas of nature and beauty.

We do not know the moment and the thought which led Debussy to consider the sea as a subject for his musical inspiration. But this must have been just the release that he required at the time. What other idea would have offered as free play for his imagination and his special artistic resources? Here was the place to modulate as freely as he pleased, to assemble and mingle and disperse rhythms as fluctuant as those of the elements, and to utilize all the tone-tints of his orchestral palette. At an earlier period this invitation of the sea would have been artistically dangerous; in which case Debussy would probably have been wiser than to attempt it. "Sirenes," with all its freshness and charm, is a pretty picture in a frame beside "La Mer." In that work Debussy undertook something more vast and perilous. But the moment had come for the greater, adventure. He entered upon it with inquisitiveness. Had there been within him more powerful and chaotic forces he might have been destroyed by this f usion with nature. Instead, he was cool enough, and sufficiently limited, to give us an unforgettable portrayal of the sea, drawn to his own scale. He was sufficiently sensuous, while remaining the observant Frenchman, to yield himself voluptuously to the sea's embrace, and put down just what she whispered in his ear, in terms of a liberated yet marvelously ordered music.

The movement, the undulation of tone, begins as mysteriously as the echo in a sea-shell. The ocean stretches indolently in the sun. Winds whisper and waves curl. The mood becomes more exultant and tumultuous. Cries of exultant spirits sound from the deep. Debussy does not concern himself with melodic lines, which would be so definitely out of place here. He utilizes fragments of harmony and little melodic figures, submerged in the interlacinig rhythms and surges of the orchestral tone. You would say that he was more concerned with the glint and refraction of light on a wave than with methods of thematic development, yet the piece has sequence and organism. Toward the end a chorale is intoned by wind instruments under the clamor of the rest of the orchestra—the chorale of the depths which, with imposing splendor, returns in the last movement.

The middle movement of this symphonic structure takes the place, in a general way, of the scherzo of the symphony. It is a capricious dance of elements, a sport of wind and spray. The last movement is a gustier and wilder ocean, with a deeper pulse and menace. Debussy uses his scale of whole tone intervals, of which he was fond, with special results in this movement—in wild upward-rushing figures, and harmonic crashes, and in a broad figure that wonderfully reflects the surge and motion of the great white-maned horses of the sea. In a moment of lull and mystery a siren voice calls from very far away, and the cry is repeated, always more insistently and voluptuously. Rapid rhythmic figures and fanfares are counterpoints to the reappearance of the majestic chorale of the first movement, and an unusual harmonic conclusion is suggestive of the ever-enduring sea.

Some could say that Debussy's harmonic scheme, which seems so irregular, was really one of the closest interrelations, that there was a gravitation of shifting harmonic bodies about a central key. Specialists could argue that matter from the analytical systems of different schools of musical thought. More indisputable, and not less magical in this score, is Debussy's peculiar use of wind-instruments. That is unique, and is a principal source of the music's spell. The sonorous proportions of the modern symphony orchestra are a little too heavy on the string side to give these effects the proper measure of distinctness. It is when the string choir is reduced a little in its numbers that the wind parts are thrown into the proper relief. Once, owing to the accident of a small platform for a large orchestra, the writer heard "La Mer" done with a relatively small string choir. The effect was one of unforgettable strangeness and mystery.

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