Claude Debussy turns the tide of popular opinion

It is a hundred years since the death of French composer Claude Debussy.

There are at least 140 recordings of Debussy’s best known orchestral work “La mer” (The Sea). Composed between 1903 and 1905, La mer was completed at the Grand Hotel, Eastbourne, where Debussy was staying with his mistress Emma Bardac correcting the proofs. Originally, the three movements that make up what Debussy labelled symphonic sketches were titled Mer belle aux Îles Sanguinaires (Calm sea at the Îles Sanguinaires), Jeux de vagues (Play of the waves), and Le vent fait danser la mer (The wind makes the sea dance).

The Îles Sanguinaires are four islands off the western coast of Corsica. Their name (blood-red or bloody) is variously attributed to the red of the rock, the pink flowers in autumn, or the former quarantine station on the largest island. However, and more prosaically, it seems that the phrase “La mer est toujours belle aux Îles Sanguinaires” often ended weather reports for the Corsican islands published in the daily newspaper Le Temps. Debussy may have thought the title evoked the mood he was trying to create.

By the time of publication the three movements had become De l’aube à midi sur la mer (From dawn to noon on the sea), Jeux de vagues (Play of the waves), and Dialogue du vent et de la mer (Dialogue of the wind and the sea). The prestigious Orchestre Lamoureux conducted by Camille Chevillard gave the premiere on 15 October 1905. Pierre Lalo, critic of Le Temps, wrote a derogatory review that ended, “I neither hear, nor see, nor feel the sea.” At the time, public opinion was against Debussy because of his affair with Emma Bardac, the wife of a Parisian banker. Since then La mer has become one of the most popular pieces in the orchestral repertoire.

LaMer1Debussy’s childhood summers at Cannes left him with vivid memories of the sea. He once wrote to his composer friend André Messager “I was destined for the fine life of a sailor and it was only by chance that I was led away from it. But I still have a great passion for the sea.” Like the great British seascape painter Turner, who stared at the sea for hours and then went inside to paint, Debussy worked from memory, occasionally turning for inspiration to other sources. Tellingly, when the score was printed, Debussy insisted that the cover include a detail from “The Great Wave off Kanagawa”, by the Japanese artist Hokusai, then enormously popular in France.

Writing in Debussy (1936 / 1980), Edward Lockspeiser said of La mer, “In those mirages of gleaming spray, of the crash of waves or of the gurgling backwash are pages as beautiful and as pregnant with meaning as anything ever conceived by a composer of music.” Conductors and audiences have long agreed.

Of the countless recordings out there, the following are held to be among the best: Arturo Toscanini (NBC Symphony Orchestra), Herbert von Karajan (Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra), Jean Martinon (French National Radio Orchestra), Bernard Haitink (Concertgebouw Orchestra), Pierre Boulez (Cleveland Orchestra), Simon Rattle (Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra), Myung-Whun Chung (Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra), Yannick Nézet-Séguin (Orchestre Métropolitain du Grand Montréal).

But if you want just one, it was Bernard Haitink who once said his credo was “Warmth, yet clarity”, nowhere better demonstrated than in his 1976 recording with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.

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Philip Lee

Writer and musician who tries to join up the dots.

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