Desbussy - La Mer, three symphonic sketches for orchestra

Duration : 30 minutes

The Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, conducted by Mikko Frank, performs "La Mer" by Claude Debussy. Live concert recorded on 14 September 2018 at the Radio France Auditorium.

Often considered as Debussy's masterpiece, La Mer presents itself as a symphony in three movements whose descriptive titles conceal deeper intimate revelations. Did Debussy not declare: "There should only be sirens in the sea..."? And yet, after the waves caused by Pelléas, it was in Bourgogne that he began working in 1903 on his vast poem." He wrote to André Messager "You'll tell me that the ocean doesn't exactly wash the hillsides of Burgundy...! And that this could well turn out like some studio landscape! But I have countless memories: that's better, to my mind, than a reality whose charm generally weighs too heavily on one's consciousness".

The rest of the work's orchestration was perfected in 1904 in Jersey and later in Dieppe. At its premiere on 15 October 1905, the welcome was reluctant, even hostile. It is undeniable that the road travelled by Debussy since Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune had gradually and progressively widened. As Jean Barraqué notes, "With La Mer, Debussy truly invented a process of development that allows the work to propel itself without the help of a pre-established model."

From the opening of the first movement, "De l’Aube à midi sur la mer", the muted strings announce the varying climate of the work, without ever revealing a tonal chord. Then arrives the harp and the soft brilliance of the cymbals, slowly enlightening the mysterious atmosphere before the sunrise. A muted trumpet begins to outline a theme, one that will return cyclically much in the style of César Franck.

Then comes a vibrant passage of the winds, a salute to the light. The entire orchestra takes hold of the first section (indicated Modéré sans lenteur, with a very supple rhythm) where a theme exposed by muted horns is then decorated with arabesques and melodic patterns. The second section (Un peu plus mouvementé) evokes, above a pattern of divided cellos, the shimmering waves.

A kind of orchestral immobility opens the coda and it is finally the arrival of the dazzling full noon by the brass. Between the opening exposition and the multiple sections of "Jeux de vagues" takes place a development marked by a succession of languid or capricious motifs combined with the calls of the previous themes according to various reprisals. At the coda, everything fades into a transparent major E.

In the final part, "Dialogue du vent et de la mer" comes a dramatic richness hardly suggested by the previous passages. In the form of a rondo, framed by the introduction and the coda, the unleashed elements finally come to blows. To the repeated theme initially sung in the woods (with a profound lyricism, one constant throughout) are added two verses with a cyclical theme, before ending gloriously with the brass and a sharp strike from the timpani.

Written by Pierre-René Serna.

Berlioz, Chausson, Ravel, Matalon and Debussy, performed by the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France
Full concert
Berlioz, Chausson, Ravel, Matalon and Debussy, performed by the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France
Auditorium de la Maison de la Radio, Paris
Claude Debussy
Claude Debussy
All artists
  • Mikko Franck
    Mikko FranckConductor
  • Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio FranceOrchestra