Claude Debussy (1862–1918) La Mer
Trois Esquisses Symphoniques – Urtext edited by Peter Jost [orch] duration: 23'
picc.2.2.cor ang.2.3.dble bsn – 4.3.2corn.3.1. – timp.perc – 2hp – str
The three symphonic sketches “La Mer” are, after Prélude à “L'aprèsmidi d'un faune”, no doubt Debussy's most frequently performed orchestral work.
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The three symphonic sketches La Mer are, after Prélude à Laprèsmidi dun faune, no doubt Debussys most frequently performed orchestral work. This success derives in part from its formal resemblance to a symphony, which had already been noted by the composers contemporaries, and in part from its sound, which was associated from the very start with the shimmer and iridescence of Impressionism.
Peter Jost takes all major sources into consideration. Ultimately, the musical text of his Urtext edition is based on a copy of the second edition of the score, published in 1909, in which the composer incorporated his experiences as auditor and conductor into a last authorized version. After the cool reception given La Mer at its world premiere, Debussy revised the work and conducted the extraordinarily successful performances of it in early 1908 in Paris,London and Rome.
|1. De l’aube à midi sur la mer|
|2. Jeux de vagues|
|3. Dialogue du vent et de la mer|
Throughout his life, Claude Debussy was fascinated by nature and, in particular, by the sea and its perpetual motion and play of colors. On 12 September 1903 he told his friend André Messager (1853–1929), who had conducted the world premiere of Pelléas et Mélisande the previous year: “Perhaps you do not know that I was intended for the fine career of a sailor and that only the vicissitudes of life led me away from it.” Nevertheless, I still have a sincere passion for it [the sea]. It is thus all the more surprising that Debussy did not begin his ambitious orchestral work La Mer on the coast of the Atlantic or the Mediterranean, but in the remote town of Bichain (Département Yonne) in Burgundy, at the summer residence of his parents-in-law, where the composer spent the summer of 1903 with his wife. Although in late August he wrote to the conductor Édouard Colonne (1838–1910) that he was working on “orchestral pieces” as well as on other works, this rather vague reference was supplanted by a more definite description in the abovequoted letter to Messager: “I am working on three symphonic sketches entitled: 1. Mer belle aux îles sanguinaires [Calm Sea before the Sanguinaires Islands]. 2. Jeu de vagues [Play of the Waves]. 3. le vent fait danser la mer [The Wind Lets the Sea Dance] under the general title La Mer. [...] Now you will say that the ocean does not exactly bathe the vineyards of Burgundy! And that the work might resemble a landscape painted in a studio! But I have countless memories; and in my opinion, they are worth more than a reality whose charm generally weighs too heavily on ones mind.” Debussy perhaps borrowed the singular subtitle symphonic sketches from a work that was very much in vogue at that time, La Mer. Esquisses symphoniques daprès un poème de Eddy Levis (1890) by the Belgian composer Paul Gilson (1865–1942). At first glance, the title of the first sketch seems to allude to an actual place, the Îles Sanguinaires, a group of small islands in the Gulf of Ajaccio, just off the western coast of Corsica. In actual fact, however, the title more likely alludes to the novella La Mer by the French author Camille Mauclair (1872–1945), which was published in 1893. Another possible maritime literary influence on the genesis of La Mer is the novella Escale en rade de Nemours by Pierre Louÿs (1870–1925), which describes a storm at sea. The author sent a copy of his Sanguines collection, which had just been published, to Debussy in the summer of 1903, for his vacation in Bichain.
Debussy had informed his publisher Jacques Durand (1865–1928) about his new work and mentioned the titles of the pieces on the same day that he wrote to Messager. He promised Durand that he would complete La Mer in Bichain or at least bring it forward substantially. We do not know to what extent this was the case. The composer was apparently unable to continue working on La Mer until the summer of the following year. This time, he actually did spend the period between late July and mid October at the sea, first on the Channel Island of Jersey and then in Pourville near Dieppe on the coast of Normandy. He kept his publisher regularly informed about his works and in early August 1904 he phrased his progress report promisingly albeit rather vaguely: The sea has been very good to me; it has shown me all of its moods. On 24 September, however, he explained: “I wanted to finish La Mer, but I must still complete the orchestration, which is as wild and capricious as the sea!” Upon his return to Paris, Debussy again turned to other works but signed the contract for the publication of La Mer on 22 December 1904, which ultimately put him under pressure to deliver the manuscript before the contractual deadline. The pressure grew on the one hand because of an illness that temporarily prevented him from working, and on the other hand because of the changes he kept making. He thus inquired of Durand on 6 January 1905 whether he had already given the publisher the new title of the first movement; it would seem that Debussy only formulated the definitive titles of the two outer sections at a later point in time: De laube à midi sur la mer [From Dawn till Noon on the Ocean] as well as Dialogue du vent et de la mer [Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea]. He also reported on 13 January that he had had to alter the close of Jeu de vagues [later definitive title: Jeux de vagues]. Finally, after further delays, he wrote on 6 March 1905 to Durand, who was then in southern France: “You can relax, my dear friend, for La Mer is finished, and in the hands of the engravers, copyists, etc. since Saturday [= 4 March].” The dating “5 mars 1905” at the end of the autograph score (A) seems to contradict this statement, but Debussy probably gave the publishing house only part of the score at first. The printing process moved along briskly; Debussys autograph, bearing a dedication to Jacques Durand, was used as the Stichvorlage. The score (E1) was registered at the office for presentation copies (“Dépôt légal”) on 18 July 1905 and was officially released on 15 November 1905. The composer used the intervening months for corrections and alterations, as can be seen in a comparison of the preliminary copy and the printed copies.
La Mer was first performed at the Concerts Lamoureux in Paris on 15 October 1905 under the direction of Camille Chevillard (1859–1923) and, like its repeat performance the following week, it was given a relatively cool and reserved reception. One reason was that neither the conductor nor the orchestra were sufficiently prepared for this music; another was that so many people, including Debussys friends and supporters, were so fixated on a continuation of the style of Pelléas et Mélisande that they were perplexed by the works uncommon structure, with its clear lines and forms. While the work was performed spora - dically afterwards (e.g. in Brussels and New York), the shift towards a greater acceptance by the public was not really triggered until early 1908, when Debussy stood at the conductors desk for the first time and led performances of the work first in Paris on 19 and 26 January, and then in London and Rome. The experience of hearing the work in this manner influenced the alterations he made in the score, which led to the printing of a second, revised edition (E2) in 1909. Since there is no evidence of further intended changes, this second edition of the score represents both Debussys last will and testament for La Mer as well as the main source for the present critical new edition. Further editions were published after the composers death, but they need not be taken into consideration here. They correspond partly to the first edition and partly to the second, and sometimes even partly represent a mixture of both. Establishing a consistency among these findings is made even more difficult by the fact that there are three surviving copies of the first edition of the score (K1, K2, K3) into which the composer entered modifications that are sometimes at variance with one another and were not all carried out in the second edition of 1909. Even if it is impossible to clear up all of these matters, also because one of these copies of the score has been only partially accessible to date, it was possible to determine somewhat more precisely the relationship of the revised sources among each other through a comprehensive comparison of these autographic entries, which thus allowed a reassessment of their relevance for the new edition (see the Revisionsbericht). It is not known when exactly the composer noted these changes, but their terminus ante quem is early 1908, seeing that Debussy addressed Édouard Colonne on 8 January 1908 with a few wishes for alterations and corrections (see the Revisionsbericht). The director of the famous Concerts Colonne was orig - inally supposed to conduct La Mer himself on 12 January 1908, but then bowed out since the rehearsals proved too difficult and the composer had to step in, as mentioned above, on the following two Sundays (19 and 26 January).
After the successful performances under Debussys direction, La Mer was soon universally recognized as a masterpiece and properly evalu - ated. It entered the concert repertoire relatively quickly and is, after Prélude à Laprès-midi dun faune, no doubt Debussys most frequently performed orchestral work. This success derives in part from its formal resemblance to a symphony, which had already been noted by the composers contemporaries, and in part from its sound, which was associated from the very start with the shimmer and iridescence of Impressionism. By complaining that the sea was not at all, or only in - sufficiently, heard or felt, the first critics gave voice to a misconception of La Mer as a tone-painting and programmatic symphony a mis - understanding encouraged by the titles of the three sections. As can be seen in Debussys reactions to these reviews, as well as in various passages of his writings, he was less concerned about a musical illustration of the sea than about the analogy of the natural phenomenons sounds, colors and movements with musical tones, harmonies and rhythms. To put it more pointedly, “it was a portrayal and not an imitation, which the composer envisaged.” Nature was one of the most important sources of inspiration for the artist Debussy, but as a genuine musical model and not as a source of illustrative imitation; the composer was well aware of the inadequacy of works of art next to nature. On 28 July 1915 he wrote from Pourville that the sea was “admirable” and “truly beautiful more beautiful than La Mer of a certain C. D.”
We wish to extend our thanks to the Bibliothèque nationale de France (Paris), the British Library (London), which also permitted the printing of the facsimile, the Paul Sacher Foundation (Basel) and the Sibley Music Library, Eastman School of Music (Rochester, N.Y.) for kindly putting the sources at our disposal. My particular thanks go out to Dr. Felix Meyer (Basel) and Dr. Denis Herlin (Paris) for their precious information and advice, and, once again, to Breitkopf & Härtels in-house reader Christian Rudolf Riedel for his valuable collaboration.
Buchloe, Spring 2006 Peter Jost
We offer a PDF of the complete text with all notes for download.