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Claude Debussy (1862 - 1918)


La Mer, L. 109
I. De l'aube a midi sur la mer
II. Jeux de vagues
III. Dialogue du vent et de la mer

La Mer was Debussy's next major orchestral work after the Nocturnes, and it is very different. It is subtitled "Three Symphonic Sketches" and is the nearest Debussy came to writing a symphony. Though it avoids sonata form and any recognisable formal structures, it is recognisably in D-flat, it has three clear movements of which the second is a sort of scherzo, and all the main themes are closely related to each other.

He began work on La Mer in 1903 and finished it in March 1905. This was a time of personal emotional crisis for Debussy: in July 1904 he left his wife for another woman, with whom he fled from Paris, and spent most of the summer in Jersey and at Dieppe on the Channel coast. His new love, Emma, fired his inspiration for many later works, but it cost Debussy dearly in lost friends and public esteem. When La Mer was first performed in 1905 it was not a success, partly because the orchestra could not understand it and played it badly, but also because news of his affair had only recently come out, and performers and audience were frankly unsympathetic. However it soon established its current reputation as a masterpiece, both of French music in particular and 20th century music in general.

The first movement opens quietly, the sea rocking gently. An oboe picks out a simple motto; then the cor anglais and trumpet outline a longer theme. One of the reasons for the unity of the work is that these two simple themes are the source for almost all the music in La Mer. The tempo picks up and the key drops to D-flat for the first main section, the sea now rippling more busily. This develops and becomes quite agitated before it subsides, and a new theme is given out boldly by the cellos. This gives rise to a longer section and a bigger climax, constantly underpinned by a rocking figure. This subsides and after a brief period of flat calm, the coda hints at the great, but still latent, power of the sea.

Play of the Waves is a swift and complex movement, the most 'modern' of La Mer. Themes are never dwelt on for long but quickly tossed away, and the sound of the particular instruments is fundamental to the music. The scoring is delicate and subtle, mostly fairly quiet, all sparkling air and light. Despite one major climax towards the end, it fizzles out as airily as it began.

The last movement has terrific drive and even when quiet we really feel the power of the sea unleashed. The tunes are closely based on those of the first movement, even played on the same instruments at the beginning - oboe and muted trumpet. Then, above a choppy wave pattern in the strings, a long theme, sustained and flexible, represents the wind. We hear siren notes in the horns and a long crescendo to a big climax. Then a calm interlude and, with a sense of homecoming, D-flat major is re-established. We now sum up the whole work - first calm, then powerful, and finally with a breathless energy that hurls us to the conclusion.

Nocturnes, L. 91
I. Nuages
II. Fetes

Debussy is perhaps the most refined and subtle revolutionary in the history of music. His interest was more in the other arts than music, being an enthusiast for the symbolist poetry of Mallarme and the impressionist paintings of Turner and Manet. His few other musical interests included Mussorgsky (whose harmonic ideas anticipate Debussy's own) and Gamelan music from Java. He was the first composer for whom a chord became a musical & emotional experience in itself, when divorced from its musical context. His impact has been as great, maybe even greater, than the more obvious musical revolutionary of the 20th century, Schoenberg.

His first big achievement was the Prelude a l'Aprés-midi d'un Faune, refined and delicate, yet despite being baffling to many listeners it was an immediate success with the public. His next major orchestral work was the Three Nocturnes. This work was originally planned to be for violin and orchestra, and was intended for his friend the Belgian violinist Eugene Ysaye. But the final composition is very different - only the title is the same. The third Nocturne "Sirenes" includes an eight-part women's chorus; because of the practical difficulty this presents in performance the first two movements are often played alone.

"Nuages renders the unchanging aspect of the sky and the slow, solemn motion of the clouds, fading away in grey tones lightly tinged with white". The music is suspended and motionless, moving in parallel lines with little sense of tonality. A cor anglais motif is the only focus. A pentatonic theme appears a little faster, first on flute and harp, then on solo strings. The clouds thin and dissipate into silence.

Fetes is a complete contrast, boisterous and noisy. It opens with a whirling dance in tarantella rhythm; about half way through there is a sudden lull and a distant procession becomes audible. This swells to a climax and the dance returns, mixing with the procession. At the end the vision gradually fades to nothing. Debussy called it "a blending of music and luminous dust participating in the cosmic rhythm".

Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, L. 86

Stephane Mallarme was one of the French symbolist poets, writing subtle and atmospheric poetry riddled with deeper meaning. The symbolist movement was very influential in its time, but only in the French-speaking world, since the poems are almost impossible to translate. His most famous work is L'apres-midi dun faune which he completed in 1875. In the early 1890's the young Debussy came to meet and know Mallarme and his circle of literary friends, and the seeds were sown of several of Debussy's early masterpieces, including the opera Pelleas and Melisande (based on a play by Maeterlinck) and settings of poems by Verlaine. as well as the Prelude a "L'apres-midi d'un faune".

The Prelude was written in 1894, and first performed in Paris in December 1894, where it was a great success. It was made more famous in 1912, when it was produced as a ballet by the Ballet Russe company in Paris - the company run by impresario Serge Diaghilev which first produced all the great Stravinsky ballets. This created a scandal at the time, since it starred Nijinsky (probably the most famous male ballet dancer ever) in a choreography which was so erotic it was almost indecent. But it did Debussy's fame no harm at all.

The music is as elusive and subtle as Mallarme's poem. The melody, harmony and rhythm are intimately connected such that the listener cannot recognise in detail what he has heard - he can only recognise the overall impression it makes. Yes, there is a prominent part for the solo flute. Yes, the music can be analysed to understand its structure - though no two critics agree about this. But that is not important. What matters is the overall impression, which is of a sultry, languid passion on a hot afternoon.

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