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Debussy's 'La Mer' Marks 100th Birthday
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Debussy's 'La Mer' Marks 100th Birthday


One hundred years ago tomorrow, classical music witnessed a sea change. Really. October 15th, 1905, was the premiere of Claude Debussy's symphonic portrait of the sea, called "La Mer." The way Debussy captured the ocean's color, light and mood suggested new ways for composers to write. NPR's Tom Huizenga reports.

TOM HUIZENGA reporting:

By the time Claude Debussy wrote "La Mer," the symphony orchestra had been around for several hundred years, and there were some pretty sturdy conventions about how to build a piece and how to combine textures and sounds in the orchestra. But with "La Mer," Debussy ignored the old rules and created a whole new world of sonic possibilities.

(Soundbite of "La Mer")

Mr. REZA VALI (Composer): Debussy would not want to follow his contemporaries. He wanted to get away from the tradition.

HUIZENGA: Composer Reza Vali teaches a class in Debussy's "La Mer" at Carnegie Mellon University. His theory on why the piece sounds like it does is tied to two groups of pitches that act as building blocks.

Mr. VALI: There are two whole-tone scales.

(Soundbite of scale on piano)

Mr. VALI: The other one is this.

(Soundbite of scale on piano)

Mr. VALI: These two whole-tone scales move into the background and generate a whole array of harmonies on the foreground.

HUIZENGA: And Debussy applied those harmonies, Vali says, like an artist would fill in a wall with multicolored mosaic tiles.

Mr. VALI: First, you use the blue, followed by the green, followed by the red. Next time around, he does red followed by yellow followed by blue and so on. So, you know, at the first instance when you're close to it, you don't see it, but when you go away from the wall, you will see that incredible pattern that comes out. It's almost like a kaleidoscope.

HUIZENGA: Debussy's kaleidoscope of disorienting harmonies and undulating rhythms made the first listeners to "La Mer" a hundred years ago a little seasick.

(Soundbite of "La Mer")

HUIZENGA: In 1907, the New York Post called "La Mer" merely a painted mud puddle. The New York Sun critic labeled it chaotic and meaningless. As popular as the piece has become, to this day, critics and scholars still struggle to describe just what's going on in "La Mer." Even conductors, says Washington Post critic Tim Page, are divided on how to approach the music.

Mr. TIM PAGE (Music Critic, The Washington Post): There's a strange mixture of clarity and extremely artfully produced sense of smudge to the music. And depending on who's conducting, you have an emphasis on one or the other. I mean, when you have Boulez, you have the clarity in it.

(Soundbite of "La Mer")

HUIZENGA: That crystalline approach earned Pierre Boulez a Grammy for his recording of "La Mer." Other conductors tend to go in the opposite direction from Boulez, shrouding the music in some kind of impressionist fog. And Boulez thinks that can get you into trouble.

Mr. PIERRE BOULEZ (Composer, Conductor): Too impressionistic. I think that's the wrong way, because Debussy was very clear about all the perspectives he wants with his orchestra. That's really the main danger when you begin to conduct his work, that it becomes a kind of a music descriptiva--We say descriptive music--which is not very flattering.

HUIZENGA: But "La Mer" is descriptive. After all, Debussy gave descriptive titles to its three movements, "From Dawn to Noon on the Sea," "Play of the Waves" and "Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea." And the rhythm of the music continually rolls and tumbles, just like the sea.

(Soundbite of "La Mer")

HUIZENGA: Rolling and tumbling just like Debussy's personal life at the time he wrote "La Mer." Debussy's wife tried to commit suicide after he'd left her for a married woman. It was a huge scandal that caused many a right-minded Parisian to look down on Debussy. So some critics hear not just swirling surf in "La Mer" but also surging emotions. And all that turmoil, says Tim Page, means that you're not going to be left with any gentle, flowing melodies ringing through your head.

Mr. PAGE: If you go up to people at a concert and say, `Hum me something from "La Mer,"' there's a very good chance that the person will sort of look at you, like, `I know what it sounds like, but I can't really hum it for you.'

HUIZENGA: Not unless, of course, you happen to be St. Louis symphony conductor David Robertson.

Mr. DAVID ROBERTSON (Conductor, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra): Da, da, da. Da, da, da, dee, dee, da. Dee, dee, da da, da, da, dee, dee...

(Soundbite of "La Mer")

HUIZENGA: Robertson loves conducting "La Mer" and for him, the high point comes near the end, where the wind and the waves calm down for a stretch.

Mr. ROBERTSON: And there's a moment where you've set down a low D-flat in the basses. It's almost at the bottom of what we can hear. And right up at the top of what most of us can hear, you know, just before we get into dog register of hearing, is a very high harmonic on an A-flat.

(Soundbite of "La Mer")

Mr. ROBERTSON: Harmonically, you've gone from one of the lowest notes the orchestra can play to one of the highest notes that we can hear, and it's as though at that point, you are looking at the whole horizon of the sea. I mean, it's Melville in its sense of extraordinary expanse of just flatness with the sky and color.

(Soundbite of "La Mer")

HUIZENGA: Like the ever-changing surface of the sea, in "La Mer," there's always a sudden spray of notes refracted in light or chords swelling, and for composer Reza Vali, that means new sounds to marvel at.

Mr. VALI: It took 100 years for us to understand what really Debussy has done. It's like a gold mine. The more we dig, the more we find gold.

HUIZENGA: Debussy said one time he was destined to be a sailor, but fate led him in another direction. Fortunately, that direction gave us "La Mer," mysterious and wild and still sounding fresh after a hundred years. Tom Huizenga, NPR News.

(Soundbite of "La Mer")

INSKEEP: You can find three interpretations of "La Mer" at


INSKEEP: Renee's back with us on Monday. I'm Steve Inskeep.

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