1905: Debussy: La Mer, age 43

At the time he wrote La Mer, Debussy pushed the limits of what was considered acceptable. La Mer’s initial reception was most likely negatively influenced by poor performances, something very common when new works are debuted by conductors who are not up to the task.

Difficult to categorize

This music is very difficult to categorize. Debussy, from what I read, did not want his music to be described as a “tone poem”. He did not call this a symphony even though it is clearly in three movements. It is also ironic that he loved the sea but never learned how to swim. Today as we hear this it just sounds “pretty”, “nice”, and very easy to listen to.

Celibidache, MPO (live, 1992)

From dawn to noon on the sea: very slow – animate little by little

Play of the Waves – allegro with a very versatile rhythm – animated

Dialogue of the wind and the sea: animated and tumultuous – ease up very slightly

Total time: 32:34

Instrumentation:

  • 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, cor anglais, 2 clarinets, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon
  • 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 cornets, 3 trombones, tuba
  • timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, tam tam, glockenspiel, 2 harps
  • strings

What  Stokowski said:

Imagine a Disney La mer (high-flying albatrosses, leaping dolphins, cold-eyed sharks on the prowl and all weathers), and that’s what this La mer amounts to: a film soundtrack rather than a three-tier symphony, thrilling and alarmingly immoderate.

But why did he say this?

First of all, Stokowski was the most extreme of all conductors in choreographing what we hear, and how we hear it. You have to hear this recording on earphones or with a superb sound system to understand what is going on. Phase 4 was a very different way of recording. When each instrument plays, you will know where it is, way on the left, way on the right or more to the middle. It is an extremely spacious recording. That’s the first thing. Then there is the interpretation, which is both extremely rich and very individualistic.

I believe Phase 4 was the forerunner of what we have today, spot mikes that allow a conductor to shape the sound in a way that was only dreamed of earlier. Nothing will be the same as live sound, which means that if recordings are meant to compete with live events, they have to do something different.

He recorded this at age 88…

Stokowski recorded this for the first time at almost 90. I like his freedom and his creativity in bringing the music alive.

One critic who should be remembered forever as a fool…

J Jemain wrote in Le ménestrel that Debussy “avoids all that might resemble a melody, a leading theme, however short“.

And who is J Jemain? Just another hack writer who was wrong about everything, and in an extremely nasty way.

There are more idiots who wrote incredibly stupid things about this music.

But I’ll get to them another time.

Leave a Reply