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La mer (Debussy)

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Title: La mer (Debussy)  
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Subject: Claude Debussy, Sinfonia (Berio), Maurice Ravel, Impressionist music, Impressionism in music
Collection: 1905 Compositions, Compositions by Claude Debussy, Compositions for Symphony Orchestra
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La mer (Debussy)

Reproduction of Hokusai's Wave from the cover of the 1905 edition of La Mer

La mer, trois esquisses symphoniques pour orchestre (French for The sea, three symphonic sketches for orchestra), or simply La mer (i.e. The Sea), is an orchestral composition (L 109) by the French composer Claude Debussy.

Composed between 1903 and 1905, the piece was initially not well received, but soon became one of Debussy's most admired and frequently performed orchestral works.


  • Composition 1
  • Instrumentation 2
  • Movements 3
  • Interpretation 4
  • Reception 5
  • Influence, quotation and sampling 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8


The work was started in 1903 in France and completed in 1905 at Grand Hotel Eastbourne on the English Channel coast. The premiere was given on 15 October 1905 in Paris, by the Orchestre Lamoureux under the direction of Camille Chevillard.

Eastbourne was also where Frank Bridge was to complete his suite The Sea in 1911.

Debussy arranged the piece for piano for four hands in 1905,[Grove Music Online 1] and in 1909 his publisher Durand presented a second edition of La mer with the composer's revisions.[1]


La mer is scored for 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, tamtam, glockenspiel, 2 harps and strings.


A typical performance of this piece lasts about 23 or 24 minutes. It is in three movements:

  1. (~09:00) "De l'aube à midi sur la mer" – très lent – animez peu à peu (si mineur)
  2. (~06:30) "Jeux de vagues" – allegro (dans un rythme très souple) – animé (do dièse mineur)
  3. (~08:00) "Dialogue du vent et de la mer" – animé et tumultueux – cédez très légérement (do dièse mineur)

Usually translated as:

  1. "From dawn to noon on the sea" or "From dawn to midday on the sea" – very slow – animate little by little (B minor)
  2. "Play of the Waves" – allegro (with a very versatile rhythm) – animated (C sharp minor)
  3. "Dialogue of the wind and the sea" or "Dialogue between wind and waves" – animated and tumultuous – give up very slightly (C sharp minor)


La mer is a masterpiece of suggestion and subtlety in its rich depiction of the ocean, which combines unusual orchestration with daring impressionistic harmonies. The work has proven very influential, and its use of sensuous tonal colours and its orchestration methods have influenced many later film scores. While the structure of the work places it outside of both absolute music and programme music (see below on the title "Three symphonic sketches") as those terms were understood in the early 20th century, it obviously uses descriptive devices to suggest wind, waves and the ambience of the sea. But structuring a piece around a nature subject without any literary or human element to it – neither people, nor mythology, nor ships are suggested in the piece – also was highly unusual at the time.

As a young boy, Debussy's parents had plans for him to join the navy. Debussy himself even commented on his fond childhood memories of the beauties of the sea. However, as an adult composing "La mer," he rarely visited the sea, spending most of his time far away from large bodies of water. Debussy drew inspiration from art, "preferring the seascapes available in painting and literature..."[2] to the physical sea. This influence lends the piece its unusual nature.

Debussy called La mer "three symphonic sketches," avoiding the loaded term symphony.[3] Yet the work is sometimes called a symphony; it consists of two powerful outer movements framing a lighter, faster piece which acts as a type of scherzo. But the author Jean Barraqué (in "La Mer de Debussy," Analyse musicale 12/3, June 1988,) describes La mer as the first work to have an "open" form – a devenir sonore or "sonorous becoming... a developmental process in which the very notions of exposition and development coexist in an uninterrupted burst." Simon Trezise, in his book Debussy: La Mer (Cambridge, 1994) notes, however, that "motifs are constantly propagated by derivation from earlier motifs" (p. 52).

Simon Trezise notes that "for much of La Mer, Debussy spurns the more obvious devices associated with the sea, wind, and concomitant storm in favor of his own, highly individual vocabulary" (p. 48–49). Caroline Potter (in "Debussy and Nature" in The Cambridge Companion to Debussy, p. 149) adds that Debussy's depiction of the sea "avoids monotony by using a multitude of water figurations that could be classified as musical onomatopoeia: they evoke the sensation of swaying movement of waves and suggest the pitter-patter of falling droplets of spray" (and so forth), and — significantly — avoid the arpeggiated triads used by Wagner and Schubert to evoke the movement of water.

The author, musicologist and pianist Roy Howat has observed, in his book Debussy in Proportion, that the formal boundaries of La mer correspond exactly to the mathematical ratios called The Golden Section. Trezise (p. 53) finds the intrinsic evidence "remarkable," but cautions that no written or reported evidence suggests that Debussy consciously sought such proportions.


The piece was initially not well received – partly because of inadequate rehearsal and partly because of Parisian outrage over Debussy's having recently left his first wife for the singer Emma Bardac. But it soon became one of Debussy's most admired and frequently performed orchestral works, and became more so in the ensuing century. The first recording was made by Piero Coppola in 1928.

The Grand Hotel, Eastbourne where La mer was completed in 1905.

In a book of interviews,[4] the great Ukrainian/Soviet pianist Sviatoslav Richter called La mer "A piece that I rank alongside the St Matthew Passion and the Ring cycle as one of my favorite works". Richter said further, on listening to his favorite recording (by Roger Désormière), "La mer again; shall I ever tire of listening to it, of contemplating it and breathing its atmosphere? And each time is like the first time! An enigma, a miracle of natural reproduction; no, even more than that, sheer magic!"[5] Richter also mentioned two other Soviet admirers of the work: "One day, after listening to this work, Anna Ivanovna exclaimed, 'For me, it's exactly the same miracle as the sea itself!'".[6] Richter also said that for his teacher, Heinrich Neuhaus, La mer was "the work by Debussy that he loved above all others ('Slava, put on La mer,' he almost always used to say whenever he came round here.)".[7] Of the Désormière recording, which he played for Neuhaus, Richter said it is "The most beautiful in the whole history of the gramophone."[8]

Influence, quotation and sampling

Generally speaking, La mer has been influential to many contemporary soundtrack composers because of its highly suggestive and moody atmosphere.

  • Luciano Berio quotes the 3rd movement [9] in the third movement of his Sinfonia, premiered in 1968.
  • Some passages (the 3rd movement, for example) of La mer may have inspired John Williams for the score he wrote for Jaws (1975).
  • In 1991, the Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu, who referred to Debussy as being his "first teacher", based a work, Quotation of Dream: Say Sea, Take Me! on a theme from La mer.
  • The Nine Inch Nails song "La Mer" is remarkably influenced by Debussy´s "La Mer"
  • In 2002, Norwegian composer Biosphere loosely based his ambient album Shenzhou around looped samples of La mer.[10]


  1. ^ Trezise, Simon (March 2000). """Review of "La mer by Claude Debussy. Notes 56 (3): 783. Retrieved October 21, 2014. 
  2. ^ Huscher, Phillip. "Program Notes". Chicago Symphony Orchestra Program Notes. Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Retrieved 14 November 2012. 
  3. ^ Trezise, Simon (1994). Debussy: La mer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 47.   "He had not composed an orthodox symphony, but neither did he want La mer to be known as a symphonic poem ... [so by calling it] 'Three symphonic sketches' ... [Debussy] must have felt that he had deftly avoided association with either genre.
  4. ^ B. Monsaingeon, editor (1998), Sviatoslav Richter: Notebooks and Conversations, p. 121.
  5. ^ Monsaingeon, p. 187.
  6. ^ Monsaingeon, p. 171.
  7. ^ Monsaingeon, p. 177.
  8. ^ Monsaingeon, p. 121.
  9. ^ score
  10. ^ "Biosphere, Shenzhou, Touch, 2002". 2001–2010. Retrieved 15 August 2013. 
  1. ^ Lesure, François; Howat, Roy. "Debussy, Claude". Grove Music Online. 

External links

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