Waves of Sound: Debussy's La Mer

*a weekly guide to essential classics*

The Great Wave. i i

hide captionThe Great Wave.

Wikimedia Commons
The Great Wave.

The Great Wave.

Wikimedia Commons

Hear The Music

Debussy Album Cover
close

Purchase Featured Music

  • "La Mer, symphonic sketches (3) for orchestra, L. 109"
  • Album: Saint-Saëns: Symphony No.3/Debussy: La Mer/Ibert: Escales
  • Artist: Charles Münch
  • Label: RCA
  • Released: 1959
 

Claude Debussy's most concentrated and brilliant orchestral work, La Mer, is one of the supreme achievements in the symphonic literature. It is a work of such imagination that it stands apart from traditions and influences, and its modernity can still be felt today, more than 100 years after it was first composed.

The sea Debussy knew, from his childhood visits to Cannes and later travels in Italy, was the Mediterranean. It's a civilized sea, and Debussy caught its moods in all their richness. He subtitled La Mer "Three Symphonic Sketches," and the names of the movements provide us with verbal suggestions to stimulate our own sense of imagery.

"From Dawn To Midday On The Sea" explores the sometimes subtle, sometimes dramatic changes of atmosphere and lighting that accompany the progress of morning on the water.

"Play Of Waves" draws the imagination to the spheres of light and motion. One senses the rocking of the waves, the unexpected shifts of current, the iridescent glint of sunlight on the surface of the water and the mysterious depths teeming with life.

"Dialog Of The Wind And The Sea" is at once ominous and urgent: One feels close to the sea's danger, as the orchestra heaves and swells in great washes of sound. A moment of suspenseful calm is reached before a great, final buildup shows the sea in stormy triumph, dazzling and full of elemental force.

Munch Paints La Mer

Charles Munch was an excitable, spontaneous musician and a marvelous interpreter of Debussy. He gave everything to his performances, and he never conducted a piece the same way twice. Each of his performances is an event in itself. There is an organic quality to his 1956 interpretation of La Mer with the Boston Symphony Orchestra — it feels "live", urgent and quite passionate (especially in the finale), but not overstated. RCA's recording is excellent: The "Living Stereo" remastering wonderfully captures the presence, balance and spaciousness of the original.

Debussy truly had the ability to see images with an Impressionist's eye, working with the color and mass of instrumental combinations much as a painter works with pigments, and Munch does wonders with the musical palette of La Mer.

To hear last week's feature, click here.

For a full archive of NPR's Classical 50, click here.

Purchase Featured Music

Debussy: La Mer

Purchase Music

close

Purchase Featured Music

  • Album: Debussy: La Mer
  • Artist: Charles Münch
  • Label: RCA Red Seal
  • Released: 2004
 

Saint-Saëns: Symphony No.3/Debussy: La Mer/Ibert: Escales

Purchase Music

close

Purchase Featured Music

  • Album: Saint-Saëns: Symphony No.3/Debussy: La Mer/Ibert: Escales
  • Artist: Charles Münch
  • Label: RCA
  • Released: 1959
 

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.