Debussy’s ‘La Mer’, written 1903-5, is an important work within the development of Western classical music because of the manner in which it lies outside musical conventions particularly in terms of form and harmony. It demonstrates a number of compositional techniques which are key to Debussy’s very individual style.
Subtitled ‘Trois esquisses symphonique’ (Three symphonic sketches), ‘La mer’ occupies an interesting position within the development of orchestral writing. With elements from the first movement reappearing in the last, the work is unified, therefore suggesting the influence of the symphony. However, compared with the work of, say, Brahms, considered a master of the symphony, or the similarly-regarded Mahler (who wrote his Fifth, Sixth and Seventh symphonies in the first 5 years of the 20th century), Debussy’s loose structures, lack of precise repetition of themes and rejection of linear harmonic progression present a markedly different approach.
Debussy was one of a number of composers who identified themselves strongly as French, and ‘La mer’ echoes Franck’s 3-movement symphonic model. Its slow introduction may have been inspired by Franck’s and D’Indy’s use of the device. ‘La mer’ should also be considered in the context of later works, for example Messaien’s ‘Turangalîla’ symphony. Messaien tended to control his structures more tightly, but, like Debussy, explored a range of exotic tonalities to create his own personal harmonic language.
‘La mer’ has three movements which loosely represent an ABA structure. The second movement is a scherzo, its mood contrasting with the more stately first and last movements. There is some homogeneity between movements 1 and 3, with the recurrence of a theme from the first movement appearing towards the end of the work (introduced by the cor anglais in bar 9 of the first movement, reiterated in variant form by the trumpet in bar 31 of the third movement). The final key signature and chord of the third movement are D flat major. The key signature of much of the first movement is also D flat, although it is used in the context of frequently ambiguous harmonies, often using modes and exotic scales.
In order to examine Debussy’s musical techniques in more detail, let us focus on the first movement of ‘La mer.’ Entitled ‘De l’aube à midi sur la mer’ (‘From dawn to midday on the sea’), like much of the work, it creates a sense of frequently shifting tableaus as new motifs, themes and tonalities enter and exit, almost like a series of ‘waves’. If, however, the movement is analysed by its key signatures, 4 sections are evident:
bars 1-30 (2 sharps) act as an introduction
bars 31-83 (5 flats) are a first section
bars 84-121 (2 flats) are a second section
bars 122 to the end at 141 (5 flats again) are a short final section or coda
At each of these points of section change, tonality, instrumentation and rhythm shift markedly. There are also clear changes in key, texture and rhythm at other points – e.g. bar 43 – suggesting a substructure of shorter tableaus within the sections, particularly within the first section.
Use of accidentals to present other tonalities is widespread, but it is notable that Debussy chooses not to use an alternative key signature, for example at bar 72, where a 2-sharp key signature (the implied tonality is B dorian mode) could have been used until the next section begins at bar 84. Also The repetition of the theme from bar 9 at bar 112 helps to unify the movement (this is the same theme restated in the third movement).
It is notable that parameters become blurred with Debussy: for example, the cross-rhythms at bar 126 – quavers, semiquavers and quintuplet demisemiquavers – create pointillistic, fluid instrumental texture rather than being strongly rhythmic, while the horn and bassoon triplets they accompany are a strong rhythmic motif.
Debussy’s orchestration is marked in its contrast of timbres. Tutti passages are rare, and strings are kept soft to allow the different timbres of the various winds to be used to their full advantage. There is extensive use of harp which emphasises the delicacy and lightness of much of the orchestral texture. Debussy was unusual for his time in his use of relatively small orchestral forces, but this allows for a particular clarity of instrumentation.
The harmony is distinctive. In an infamous conversation with a Professor at the Conservatoire, who asked the student Debussy what rule of harmony he was following, Debussy replied, “My pleasure.”
Much of the harmony in ‘La mer’ is based on exotic scales such as whole-tone (bar 115) and pentatonicism (bar 31). Chromaticism features too – note the motifs in thirds in the winds, violas and cellos in bars 60-63. These tonalities are juxtaposed with a general lack of cadences and changes are sudden rather than prepared in any way, creating a harmonic language where the traditional tension-resolution mechanism of harmonic progression is rejected in favour of an alternative language. This adds to the ambiguity: harmony is often implied, but rarely specifically defined.
(a) To what extent can ‘La mer’ be regarded as definitive of Debussy’s style?
In Debussy’s early works, approach to harmony is more conventional. In the first of ‘Deux Arabesques’ for piano solo (1888), the opening arpeggio ‘ripples’ culminate in dominant preparation at bar 5 to resolve onto E major at bar 6. Harmony is diatonic and many phrases progress to resolution through a perfect cadence (e.g. the final return to E major 8 bars before the end). The form is a simple ABA with a clear recapitulation of the exposition.
In ‘Prelude à l’aprés-midi d’un faune’ (1892-4), Debussy’s approach to tonality and form has moved on. Instead of a conventional recapitulation, the opening flute passage provides motifs that Debussy refers to again later in the piece, but always with some kind of transformation. Harmony often uses tension-resolution devices such as the cadence, but also has passages where tonality is made ambiguous through unexpected added notes and chromaticism. The opening flute motif is of indefinite key, moving chromatically and based around a tritone.
In ‘Nuages’ (the first of the ‘Three Nocturnes’ 1892-9), there is pentatonicism in a theme introduced initially on flute and harp: the instrumentation and tonality create an exotic ‘eastern’ flavour, possibly inspired by the gamelan orchestras that appeared the Paris Exposition of 1889. Again there are tonal ambiguities, particularly through chromaticism. The lower clarinet part of the opening phrase moves chromatically, casting doubt on the home key of B minor implied by the key signature and upper clarinet part.
‘La mer’ takes considerable steps to develop the harmonic innovations of these previous works, with cadences rejected in favour of exotic scales and unprepared tonal juxtapositions. The exposition-development-recapitulation structure is used in the loosest sense.
Beyond ‘La mer’, Debussy continues to explore his new harmonic language. In ‘Children’s Corner’ (1906-8) his language is more varied: the first piece, ‘Dr Gradus ad Parnassam’ is strongly diatonic, while the second, ‘Jimbo’s Lullaby’ uses a whole-tone scale (bar 39), added notes to an ambiguous F major/B major pattern in bar 19 supporting a pentatonic melody. Ragtime syncopation in ‘Golliwog’s Cake-walk’ is combined with chromaticism in imitation rather than to create harmonic ambiguity (chromaticism is found widely in Joplin’s music). ‘Jeux’ (1912) uses some of the language of ‘La mer’: it opens with a B pedal note, with wind whole-tone chords creating tonal ambiguity, although much of the work draws on diatonicism and chromaticism.
‘La mer’ is one of the more complex examples of Debussy’s style, suggesting later developments: the harmonic innovations of later works make them “elusive to analysis.”
(b) To what extent can ‘La mer be regarded as an exemplar of musical modernism?
The term ‘modernism’ is used to describe a range of approaches across the arts, united in their sense of innovation rather than carrying the mantle of previous tradition. In the words of Habermas, “Modernity revolts against the normalising functions of tradition.”
‘La mer’ encapsulates this philosophy. For example, tradition relied on the principles of harmonic progression, preparation and cadences to resolve harmonic tension. Debussy rejects this, using unprepared shifts of tonality. Harmonic devices such as triads float in parallel movement, creating touches of colour with any sense of linear progression in the traditional harmonic sense lost.
In the context of modernism, ‘Prélude à l’aprés-midi d’un faune’ was the pioneering work, employing exotic scales, unprepared changes of tonality, and freedom of form 10 years before the completion of ‘La mer’. Griffiths, referring the opening flute phrase of ‘Prélude’, says “If modern music may be said to have had a definite beginning, then it started with this flute melody.”
If ‘Prélude’ is modern, then so too is ‘La mer’, as it develops the innovative harmony, form and orchestration of the earlier work, using its principles in a larger form, focusing on freedom from tradition rather than adhering to it.
Debussy’s own concept of his position within musical development is apparent in his attitude to the harmonic approach of Wagner, who was much admired by many of his contemporaries. Wagner, said Debussy, “was a beautiful sunset that has been mistaken for a sunrise.” Wagner’s chromaticism is the pinnacle of use of harmonic progression to create tension and resolution in a development of the Western classical tradition. Debussy deploys harmony so that it cannot function in the same way: with ‘tension’ replaced with an alternative ‘tension’ rather than resolved, the tension-resolution dichotomy of Western harmony ceases to exist, and the role of harmony is inevitably transformed.
In conclusion, it is clear that ‘La mer’ is an innovative large-scale work. Above all other aspects, it is Debussy’s approach to harmony that is fundamental to his style (hence a particular focus on that parameter in the discussions above), particularly when considered in the context of modernism. It is the exploration of new harmonic languages that has characterised musical developments in the century since ‘La mer’ was completed, and Debussy can be considered of great influence in this respect.
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