A quick guide to Debussy’s La mer

Dive into Debussy’s symphonic portrait of the sea and discover some great recordings...

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How do you follow Pelleas et Melisande? The opera was first produced in Paris in 1902 and won Debussy many admirers; it even created a cult of ‘Debussyme’. 

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But the following year found Debussy determined to resist being pigeonholed.

La mer was his new way forward. Here was something with relatively clear lines, rhythmic strength and robust structure.

La mer has been variously described as ‘the best symphony written by a Frenchman’, and ‘the musical equivalent of Monet’s impressionist paintings, and those delicate, feathery prints by Hokusai’.

It is all of these and more. As a musical ‘motion picture’ of marine phenomena, it has no equal.

But it is a mistake to imagine that La mer is merely a collage of ‘cinematic’ opportunities, and that no harm is done by over-admiring the wonderful view in one p lace, or prematurely whipping up a storm in another.

Debussy’s translation of the ever-changing and apparently formless into a structure of shape, purpose and expression is a finely balanced miracle of musical technique, each detail scrupulously considered and placed.

Two great recordings from the past…

NBC Symphony Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini
RCA Victor Gold Seal GC 60265

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
DG 447 426-2

And a recent one to listen out for…

New York Philharmonic/Jaap van Zweden
Decca Gold 481 7981

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Original text by Jonathan Swain