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Many of us try to combine business and pleasure during summer vacations by bringing our work and the tools of our trade to the beach. That would have been unthinkable for Claude Debussy. Debussy felt so overwhelmed in the presence of the ocean that he could not compose within sight or sound of it, wrote naturalist Rachel Carson. His masterpiece, “ La Mer” (“ The Sea”), was created in landlocked Burgundy, France, where Debussy distilled his recollections of childhood and holidays at the shore into an intense reflection upon the essence of the sea. He wrote to a friend, “I have an endless store of memories [that] are worth more than the reality, whose beauty often deadens thought.” The sea itself is an apt metaphor for Debussy’s innovative art. As Carson wrote, the surface of Debussy’s music only hints at the brooding mystery of its depths and, ultimately, the profound mystery of life itself. After all, we carry the primordial salt of the sea in our blood. THE FLOW OF NOTES Debussy (1862-1918) is often called a musical Impressionist, in reference to the contemporaneous trend in French painting. In musicologist Paul Henry Lang’s pithy phrase, Impressionism was art in which the how dominated the what. Much as earlier painters had used color and light to illuminate realistic objects, Lang explained, musical textures had always served to articulate or enrich melodic, harmonic, or rhythmic structures. Debussy was the first composer to create music of sheer sonority that was allowed to simply exist, without constantly having to progress toward a prescribed goal. In that way, Debussy paved the way toward modern abstraction. As music author David Ewen put it, color, nuance, mood, atmosphere, and sensation were far more significant for Debussy than drama or realism; his music was intended to appeal to the senses, not the intellect. Indeed, he aligned himself with the Symbolist poets, who reveled more in the sound of words than in their actual meaning and sought to suggest reality through a dream world of metaphor and symbol. Like Impressionist painting, Debussy’s work suggested open-air sketching in its seeming naturalness, spontaneity, and inspiration in nature. Also like the Impressionists, Debussy conjured his imagery not in a sonic blur but from seemingly disparate, carefully arranged flecks of vivid color. Indeed, conductor Pierre Monteux, who worked extensively with Debussy to prepare the world premiere of his final orchestral work, recalled that the composer would get upset with performers who tended to obscure the powerful detail of his music in a delicate haze. Debussy’s vision fully emerged in his 1894 work,” Pr�lude � l’apr�s-midi d’un faune,” an exquisite 10-minute evocation of languid erotic longings on a sultry afternoon. This dreamy blend of memory and desire was inspired by an 1876 poem by St�phane Mallarm� (who, ironically, had stated that his aim was to emulate music). Its slivers of melody flit within smooth but constantly shifting instrumental textures, a spontaneous triumph of artistic inspiration over established order that defies description or formal analysis. Scholars have often said that the meandering opening flute solo breathed new life into the art of music: While seeming weightless, it leaves an indelible imprint. In retrospect, the “ Pr�lude” was one of the true turning points in aesthetic history. A decade later, the full scope of Debussy’s remarkable art is on display in “ La Mer.” BEAUTIFUL AND BEWILDERING With “ La Mer,” Debussy conceived unprecedented, yet wholly natural, qualities of sound. To do this, he divided the strings into up to a dozen separate lines, combined disparate instruments, violated accepted rules of harmony with parallel chordal movement and unresolved progressions, and toyed with thematic fragments that never coalesce into full-blown melodies. Many commentators refer to “ La Mer” as a symphony, but it deliberately shuns the essential structure and developmental focus of that genre. Its three movements bear specific titles — “From Dawn to Noon on the Sea,” “Play of the Waves,” and “Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea.” The first begins in inchoate mystery, the second suggests playful breezes, and the third conjures the interplay of powerful forces. Yet, to the frustration of those used to the schematic literalism of the popular tone poems of Debussy’s time, a specific narrative is impossible to assign. Thus, the shimmering, vibrant, imposing climax of the first movement could just as easily be a stiff breeze, clouds dispersing, the sun penetrating the depths, or the appearance of a great ship. (When Debussy’s friend and fellow composer Erik Satie quipped that he liked the part at 11:15 a.m., he was deriding the titles, not the evocative music.) While French reaction was mixed when “ La Mer” premiered in 1905, the conservative views of Americans, removed from the artistic ferment of Paris, were uniformly disparaging. The New York critics found “ La Mer” “ a putrified mud-puddle,” “unintelligible,” “persistently ugly,” “bewildering chaos,” “a dissonant jumble,” and “the dreariest kind of rubbish.” A Boston wag thought it should be titled “ Mal de Mer,” with its movements devoted to Headache, Doubt, and Nausea. But much of the ire had a less rarified source than aesthetics. The previous year, Debussy had abandoned his deeply devoted wife, Lily, a simple dressmaker, for the wealthy older wife of a prominent banker. Lily shot herself, nearly all his friends turned against him, and society recoiled to uphold its standards of decency. As critic Louis Laloy remarked, the public made the artist pay dearly for the wrongs of the man. SHIFTING VIEWS Debussy died in 1918, long before any of his orchestral works were recorded. He had disliked the first presentation of “ La Mer,” in October 1905, calling the conductor more fit to tame wild beasts than to lead music. Debussy himself led the next performance (in his conducting debut), but not until January 1908. Biographer Leon Vallas described Debussy’s conducting as stiff, strict, and wholly concerned with details — an approach that is rather hard to reconcile with his delicate technique for the piano, which he said should sound as if the hammers had disappeared. His approach was perhaps best conveyed by Arturo Toscanini, who became one of the first conductors to program “ La Mer” and whose suggested refinements in the scoring the composer himself endorsed. Toscanini’s focus on clarity and detail infuse his two studio recordings; he softened that with varying degrees of grace and impulsion in his recorded concerts. Others who followed Toscanini’s lead include Ernest Ansermet, Fritz Reiner, Guido Cantelli, and Claudio Abbado. A different, yet presumably also authentic, interpretive tradition is heard in the first recording of “ La Mer,” by Piero Coppola. Debussy was fiercely proud of his national heritage and referred to himself as a “ musicien fran�ais.” Coppola was the pre-eminent French (albeit Italian-born and -trained) conductor of the next generation; he led pioneering recordings of Debussy and Ravel that were acclaimed in their day as thoroughly idiomatic and often definitive. In his 1932 “ La Mer,” perhaps due to the quality of the recording itself, textural details tend to blur, dynamics are attenuated, and the harp is mostly inaudible. Yet while tempos and accents depart considerably from the score, the pacing is instinctive, and there’s a magnificently blended, relaxed, natural feeling of cohesion and unforced propulsion throughout. At under 21 minutes, it’s also the quickest reading on record. Other French-trained conductors who followed suit include Pierre Monteux, Charles Munch, Jean Martinon, and Paul Paray. Among the early recordings, Serge Koussevitzky and his Boston Symphony Orchestra presented a third approach, in 1939, trading the objectivity of Toscanini and the smooth, natural flow of the French for volatile personality. Others who have conducted “ La Mer” to a different drummer include Dmitri Mitropoulos, Evgeny Mravinsky, and Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein’s deeply impassioned 1989 recording, which runs 26 minutes, finds the slowest possible tempo with which to highlight the work’s components without risking structural dissolution. The most startling and extraordinary recording came in 1965 from Leopold Stokowski and the London Symphony Orchestra, who turn Debussy’s ellipses into exclamation points through exaggerated dynamics, deviant balances, extreme tempo shifts, and a spine-tingling climax. The result is perverse and surely not idiomatic Debussy, but the marvelous playing, garish color, huge suspense, tangible atmosphere, and striking drama are daring, compelling — and a huge dose of fun.
Peter Gutmann is a partner in the D.C. office of Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice. Music articles by the author are posted online at www.classicalnotes.net.

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