Monday, September 29, 2008

Debussy: La Mer and Images

"I love music passionately. And because I love it I try to free it from barren traditions that stifle it."
--Claude Debussy

Today we'll listen for the first time to Debussy, one of the greatest rule-breakers in all of classical music.
Los Angeles Philharmonic/Boston Symphony Orchestra
Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
La Mer; Images
Deutsche Grammophon, 1971/1980
If you enjoy vivid musical imagery, this is a composer you should get to know. And if you enjoy salacious personal details, you'll want to read all about the controversies of Debussy's personal life (an example: not one, but two of his jilted lovers attempted suicide by shooting themselves after he left them. Both recovered).

Fairly or unfairly, Debussy has been labeled an "impressionist"--many listeners consider his music to be an auditory representation of the well-known painting movement. I'll offer my own impression: if we have to define Debussy's music this narrowly, it's more accurate to call him a Fauve--he's more Matisse than Monet in my view.

Whatever the word modern listeners use to describe him, Debussy wrote some of history's most vivid music, and today, in the 90th year since his death, he remains an enormous influence on classical music.

Unfortunately, I can't find a link on Amazon to the same Debussy CD I have in my collection. But for those of you interested in acquiring recordings of Debussy's music, here are links to two definitive collections of his complete orchestral works, as well as a third link to a lower-cost 2CD set of his key orchestral works:

Debussy: Complete Works for Orchestra
Debussy: Orchestral Music
Debussy: Orchestral Music

Please keep in mind, when you buy anything at Amazon via links on this blog, I will receive a small commission on your purchase, and there's no added cost to you. Thank you, readers, for your support and attention!

Listener Notes for La Mer:
1) In just the first movement alone there are so many overlapping melodies and unusual harmonies from such a wide variety of instruments that it's difficult (for me at least) to keep track of all the moving parts in this music. Perhaps, rather than trying too hard to over-analyze the music, it's better to just let this work wash over you (pun intended).

2) One of my favorite parts of this work starts at the 3:51 mark on this CD. Listen to the many layers of sound here: the flute and English horn (I think) play one part in unison, which blends seamlessly into a beautiful french horn melody. And then the strings splash enormous blotches of sound on top of the french horns. If that isn't vivid music, I don't know what is.

3) As a former trumpet player, I of course love the fact that the trumpets really get to let it rip at the climax of the first movement (from the 8:45 mark until the end).

4) In last 30 seconds of the second movement, listen for the very soft cymbal rolls in the background. They sound exactly like gentle waves.

Listener Notes for Images:
1) Be sure to pronounce this work "ee-MAZHH" or you'll incur the derision of every music snob within earshot.

2) When I hear the beautiful oboe solo in the first movement of Images (begins at 0:47), and compare it to the shrill and whiny oboe in the wind quintet of my Mozart/Dennis Brain CD, it again reminds me of a fundamental truth: if you are running a symphony and you have anything less than a spectacular oboe player, you are screwed.

3) I love the first movement of Iberia ("Par les rues et par les chemins") but I think Debussy broke one rule too many by scoring two clarinets to play the key theme in unison (first occurrence is at the 0:08 mark in track 5 of my CD, and then again at about the 0:50 mark of track 5). It's going to sound shrill and off-key when two musicians play this part, no matter how well-tuned they are. A similarly shrill clarinet unison occurs about a minute and a half into the third movement of Iberia ("Le matin d'un jour de fete").

4) For still more beautiful solo oboe playing, listen to the second movement of Iberia ("Les parfums de la nuit").

5) Funny, but I was wide awake and totally alert when I sat down to listen to Images. But by the end of the "Les parfums de la nuit" movement, I had drifted off to somnolence--my eyes were half closed and I suddenly felt like I really needed a nap. It was temporary; I was back to wide awake two minutes into the next movement.

6) I actually found a useful liner note accompanying this CD! Here's how the author, Paul Griffiths, describes the final movement of Images: "The music keeps skimming in other directions, like a mind unable to concentrate." Well said.

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