Debussy: La Mer

The sum total of composer Claude Debussy’s marine voyages consisted of two crossings of the English Channel. Despite a lack of personal experience with the sea, he maintained a lifelong fascination with it. In fact, it could even be said that his separation from what he called his “old friend, the sea, always innumerable and beautiful,” was a deliberate absence, designed to stroke the flames of passion: Debussy composed La Mer holed up in Paris, insisting that the sight of the piece’s subject was so beautiful as to be paralyzing to his creativity.

Or— to make less charitable assumptions about the composer’s motives for staying in the city— perhaps he was simply busy. When Debussy had proposed marriage to his wife Lily in 1899, he provided motivation in the form of his threatened suicide if she refused. In the summer of 1904, their relationship came full circle: Debussy left her for the French singer Emma Bardac, and Lily made an attempt on her own life.

Thus, the 1905 premiere of La Mer proved to be both a musical event, and a public exploration of a question still very much alive today: to what extent is the audience permitted to separate their opinion of the artist, in all of his humanity and fallibility and messy social and sexual entanglements, from their opinion of the art? We can never know if the poor initial reception of the piece would have been warmer without the public disapproval of the composer’s personal conduct hanging over it. Musicologist Louis Laloy wrote simply that “prudish indignation had not yet been appeased;” but other writers had harsh words for the music’s depiction of its subject, with Louis Schneider describing it as “some agitated water in a saucer,” and Henry Krehbiel of the New York Tribune describing only a slightly more generous body of water, upon the American premiere, when he wrote that “the composer’s ocean was a frog-pond.”

From today’s vantage-point, we can read the initial negative reviews mostly as amusing novelties. The piece eventually came to be recognized as one of Debussy’s major achievement, especially after a performance in 1908 conducted by the composer himself. Perhaps, once the fog of scandal lifted, the world was finally ready to see La Mer for what it was. Or perhaps it was not our perception of the piece that has shifted over the past century, but our perception of the sea itself: in the same way that Homer ensured that the Greeks could gaze into the Aegean and call it wine-dark, Debussy’s music both invokes and changes our concept of the sea.