Stephen Walsh's Debussy - A Painter in Sound - extract

All this time La Mer had been brewing. It was almost a year since Debussy had written to Colonne tentatively offering him “some orchestral pieces” he was working on, and to his publisher, Jacques Durand, a fortnight later listing the titles of the three movements: “Mer belle aux îles sanguinaires,” “Jeux de vagues,” and “Le vent fait danser la Mer.” But thereafter the trail goes dead until July 1904, when he writes to Lilly from Paris expressing the (no doubt hypocritical) hope that “La Mer will be so kind as to release me so as to be with you by the 15th August,” though by the end of the month it’s “this ‘Mer’ that so disturbs me” which is keeping him in the capital.

Of course, these were evasions, but all the same it was probably true that La Mer was giving him trouble. A glance at the eventual score reveals an intricacy of texture and a thematic complexity well in advance of anything he had previously attempted for orchestra, and at the same time he was battling with a concept that was pictorial only up to a point, and beyond that distinctly abstract and imaginary. His personal relationship with the sea was not at all like that of Turner or Monet, for whom the sea in all its moods was one crucial aspect of their thinking about light and movement. Writing to André Messager from the Yonne in the early stages of composition, he explained that “I was promised for the fine career of a sailor, and only the chances of existence made me branch off. I’ve nevertheless preserved a sincere passion for Her [the sea].” Perhaps predictably, the sea was at its kindest for him in Jersey with Emma Bardac. He told Durand that it “has been very good for me, and showed me all her dresses. I’m still quite giddy with it.” He always loved the sea as an object of contemplation, in its changing colours and moods. The sea at Dieppe, he wrote many years later, “is as blue as a waltz [presumably “The Blue Danube”]; grey as an unusable sheet of metal; most often: green as absinthe. All the same it’s beautiful, more beautiful than La Mer of a certain C.D.” But he came to dislike resorts like Pourville, with their ugly holidaymakers (“thieves for sure”), crowded beaches and shabby hotels. He did not – could not – swim, and seldom if ever so much as dipped his toes or even exposed any more of his body than would normally have been acceptable in a Paris boulevard. Above all he relished the calm of the ocean (even, perhaps, when it was not calm), and the fact that it was “always in the same place.”

None of these images seems reflected in “La Mer of a certain C.D.”, except perhaps the many dresses. The original title of the first movement (“Beautiful sea at the Sanguinary Isles”) looks like an inspiration in itself, before the music appeared, to deny its sense of placid Mediterranean radiance. The assumption that Debussy pinched the title from a short story of 1893 by Camille Bellaigue has been disputed, but chiefly on the grounds that the story has hardly any bearing on the music, and that its magazine publication was too remote in time for Debussy to have remembered it. But beautiful names may stick, and then be abandoned for want of real connection, or simply to avoid what might begin to look like a facile association. Debussy’s eventual title for his first movement, “De l’aube à midi sur la mer” (“From dawn to midday on the sea”) already expresses the unsuitability of the original, and the music does so decisively. The middle movement, by contrast, kept its first title, “Jeux de vagues” (“Wave games”); but the third movement also changed, from a dance to a conversation: “Dialogue du vent et de la mer” (“Dialogue of the wind and the sea”). In all three movements, the static vision of the “Mer belle” is replaced by images of motion, turbulence, and fluidity. At one point, while still at Pourville in September 1904, he told Durand that “I would have liked to complete La Mer here, but I shall still have to finish off the orchestration, which is tumultuous and varied like the ….sea!” So tumultuous, in fact, that it took him another six months to finish.

Of all Debussy’s greatest works, La Mer is the one that shows most clearly the benefits of his inflexibly meticulous, hyper-perfectionist approach to composition. In February 1905, excusing himself this time to Lilly for not visiting her at an agreed time, he claimed that he had spent the whole day orchestrating one page of the score: a pretext, perhaps, but a believable one. Lilly had sent him a heart-breaking letter imploring him to visit her in order to discuss their divorce rather than involving lawyers, and insisting that “whatever they may say or do to you, you have no better defender than the one you once loved (Lily or Lilo), the two!” She uses the polite “vous” throughout, but only, she explains, because “I no longer dare tutoyer you, not out of irony, but solely because it’s the normal thing in our situation. Please believe for always in the sincerity of my affection.” As Debussy later admitted, such pleadings did not leave him entirely cold. But they could not (whatever he also claimed) penetrate his work.

The importance of the orchestration in La Mer becomes immediately apparent from close listening. In the first movement especially, the whole form – the shape of what one hears – is articulated by it. It’s as if Debussy set sail, as one might, without a clear itinerary in mind, and allowed the conditions, the wind and waves, sun and rain, to dictate his course. On the sea there is a certain monotony of context, a sameness or relatedness, quite unlike the varied character of a journey by rail or road; and Debussy is able to use this idea as a unifying factor while presenting his material as a sequence of more or less consequential events. At first each event is defined by its instrumental colour, as was also the case with “Nuages.” In essence, motives are not shared: a seagull is not a fish or a wave, though they all depend on the water. This is not babyish pictorialism. The music works, precisely, as a chain, with occasional repetition but no formal, structural recapitulations; these aesthetically clinching elements will come later in the work. Meanwhile the first movement proceeds, through the musical spray, in the manner of a journey, until (at about halfway, though of course this isn’t apparent as one listens) there is a pause and a sudden, dramatic change of colour, in the form of a rhetorical theme for divided cellos (Debussy requires sixteen of them). This is the start of a slow build-up to the movement’s coda, where, for the literal minded, the midday sun suddenly emerges and irradiates the entire watery scene.

No wonder Debussy changed his title. This is not at all music you could put in a frame; it is too active and protean. It has at least a dozen important themes, some fragmentary, some decorative, some lyrical, some ceremonious, all linked by a sort of musical DNA, but differentiated by the astonishing diversity and refinement of Debussy’s orchestration. On the DNA side, some features pop up like the family nose. Most of the themes have triplet figures prominent, or sometimes triplets squashed into a scotch-snap, as in the very first oboe and clarinet motive, which also introduces a semitone rise and fall – a sort of aquatic sigh – that will infect several of the later themes. Some motives remain fragmentary, single figures attached to variants of themselves; others are extended into arabesques that nevertheless depend on multiple repetition. By the end of the movement one is conscious of having travelled in a coherent but progressive way; but as for the destination, that remains to be seen.

  • Debussy: A Painter in Sound by Stephen Walsh (Faber, £20)