Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Weighing in on Debussy's "La mer"

On today’s date in 1905, Claude Debussy’s impressionistic masterpiece La Mer was performed for the first time in Paris. His fellow composers were enthusiastic about this groundbreaking orchestral suite. Saint-Saëns said “Debussy has not created a style but has cultivated the absence of style.” Boulez chimed in: “What was overthrown was not so much the art of development as the very concept of form itself … giving wings to a supple, mobile expressiveness … a miracle of proportion, balance and transparency.”  Debussy himself remarked that “there is no theory. You merely have to listen. Pleasure is the law.” The responses of French critics ranged from qualified praise to sniping. Peter Gutmann summarizes them in Classical Notes:
Jean Marnold praised the blend of its grandeur and delicacy and the weaving of shimmering colors into a fascinating polyphonic tissue. Louis Laloy vaunted the maturity of Debussy's concise, classical organization of the former art of suggestion, nuance and allusions into an intentionally incomplete work. M. D. Calvacoresi similarly praised the stronger colors, more definite lines and more robust inspiration that condensed and clarified the sum total of Debussy's discoveries. Others, though, were less enchanted. Pierre Lalo, critic of the influential le Temps, found it too studied, with nothing to do with the sea. Jean Chantavonic, while praising its evocative qualities, found it superficial and incoherent. Jean d'Voline felt the rhythm elementary and insipid. Michael Stegemann attempts to reconcile the two views, seeing La Mer as Debussy's attempt to meet his traditionalist critics part-way with clearer structures than prolonged nuances, more color than symbolism and more statements than suggestions.
But these reactions and evaluations were nothing to the firestorm that attended the piece's first performances in the good old U.S.A. “We clung like a drowning man to a few fragments of the tonal wreck,” wrote a Boston critic, saying that instead of The Sea Debussy should have titled the work Sea-Sickness. “The Sea is persistently ugly,” wrote the New York Times. “Debussy fails to give ANY impression of the sea…. There is more of a barnyard cackle in it than anything else.” The Chicago Tribune opined as follow: “It is safe to say that few understood what they heard and few heard anything they understood…. There are no themes…. There is nothing in the way of even a brief motif that can be grasped securely enough by the ear and brain to serve as a guiding line through the tonal maze. There is no end of queer and unusual effects, no end of harmonic complications and progressions that sound so hideously ugly.”
You can hear La Mer arranged for three pianos in Martha Argerich and Friends: Live from Lugano 2012. Including both modern, romantic, and classical pieces, this wonderful three-disc set features Prokofiev's Sonata No. 2; Brahms' Variations on a Theme by Haydn for Two Pianos; Schumann's Stücke im Volkston (5), Op. 102; Smetana's Sonata movement for 2 pianos, 8 hands in E Minor; Dvorák's Piano Quartet No. 2; Mahler's Piano Quartet in A Minor; Medtner's Piano Quintet in C Major, Op. post; Mozart's Sonata for Piano duet in D Major, K. 381, and Piano Concerto No. 25 in C Major, K. 503; Martucci's Theme & Variations in E-flat, Op. 58; and more.
Here is a taste of Martha Argerich at Lugano, with Debussy's Petite Suite for piano four hands.


Love Debussy? There's plenty more here, including performances by the late, great Earl Wild and Van Cliburn.

10 comments:

  1. “We clung like a drowning man to a few fragments of the tonal wreck,” wrote a Boston critic....

    I love that comment about The Sea, unjustified as it seems today. (One wonders what that critic would have thought about The Sex Pistols, say, or Eminem.)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I know, they really exercised their brains to come up with colorful language for their repugnance!

      Delete
  2. Debussy was capable of producing tone poems of great beauty and clarity. His Pelias et Melisande is a remarkable experience to listen to, very different from any other opera.
    He was a difficult man, who treated his wives with such disdain that two of them shot themselves (and lived). But he loved his daughter Chouchou, who died soon after he did, from a doctor's misdiagnosis of diphtheria.
    I'm peeved at Saint-Saens's criticism of Debussy, having been disappointed more than once by his (Saint-Saens) treatment of promising themes.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I read that one wife shot herself ... but TWO?? Mon Dieu!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I read in "The Essential Guide to Classical Music" that Gabrielle Dupont, as well as Rosalie Texier, shot herself after rejection by Debussy. No wonder his family and friends shunned him!

      Delete
    2. Someone should do a statistical analysis of nice vs. nasty in terms of artistic personalities. Some of them are quite ruthless and selfish. It would be quite interesting.

      Delete
  4. But the music is heart breakingly beautiful. Thanks for sharing the video!

    ReplyDelete
  5. I love this music so much! My mum was playing it when I was a little girl and I still remember it. I wish I could also learn to play it and also I wanted to ask can i pay someone to write my essay about the life of this talented composer?

    ReplyDelete
  6. With the following guidance you can easily learn how to write an argumentative essay.

    ReplyDelete