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A Guide To La Mer or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Analysis

About the piece/author/etc.


Debussy (1862 1918), important composer for his time, has his distinctive sound, writes in an impressionistic style but
rejected the name, started in the line of Wagner but diversed after a while
La Mer is composed between 1903-05, revised in 1908, Debussy called it 3 symphonic sketches for orchestra, especially
avoided the word symphony, 3 movements so still kinda resembles a symphony, De l'Aube a midi sur la mer (From dawn
to noon on the sea),Jeux de vagues (Play of the waves), and Dialogue du vent et de la mer (Dialogue of the wind and the
sea).2
Very different handling of harmony (obviously), melody, form ,etc. very radical for its time

Form

* Not really development or any of the classical formal plans, mostly different sections with themes keeping it together
*De l'aube a midi sur la mer
Introduction (Bars 1 30) (B) First Section (Db)
Theme 1A (Bars 31 46)
Theme 1B(Bars 47 52)
Closing Phrase (Bars 53 58)
Theme 2 (Bars 59 75)
Closing Phrase (Bars 76 83)
Second Section (Bb)
Theme 3 (Bars 84 97)
Variation 1 (Bars 98 104)
Variation 2 (Bars 105 111)
Theme 4 (Bars 112 121)
Closing Phrase (Bars 122 131)
Coda (132 141) (Db)
* Jeux de vagues
First Section
Introduction (Bars 1 8)
First Theme (Bars 9 27)
Closing Phrase (Bars 28 35)
Second Section
Second Theme (Bars 36 47)
Bridge (Bars 48 59)
Third Section (Bars 60 71)
Fourth Section (Bars 72 81)
Fifth Section (Bars 82 91)
Sixth Section (Bars 92 103)
Seventh Section (Bars 104 117)
Variation on First Theme (Bars 118 123)
Eighth Section (Bars 124 146)
Ninth Section (Bars 147 162)
Tenth Section
First Theme (Bars 163 186) Second Theme (Bars 187 208) Closing Phrase (Bars 209 218)
Coda (Bars 219 - 251)

* Dialogue du vent et de la mer


First Section
Introduction (Bars 1 8)
First Theme (Bars 9 - 21)
Variation 1 on First Theme (Bars 22 30)
Second Theme (Bars 31 42)
Closing Phrase/Transition (Bars 43 55)
Second Section
Variation 2 on First Theme (Bars 56 71)
Variation 3 on First Theme (Bars 72 79)
Variation 4 on First Theme (Bars 80 97)
Variation 1 on Second Theme (Bars 98 117)
Closing Phrase (Bars 118 132)
Third Section (Bars 133 156)
Fourth Section
Variation 5 on First Theme (Bars 157 194)
Variation 6 on First Theme/Climax 1 (Bars 195 210)
Fifth Section
Variation 2 on Second Theme (Bars 211 233)
Variation 3 on Second Theme (Bars 234 244)
Variation 7 on First Theme (Bars 245 253)
Variation 8 on First Theme/Climax 2 (Bars 254 269)
Coda/Synthesis of Two Themes (Bars 270 292)
-Harmony
*A classical approach to harmony is problematic because Debussy doesn't approach it that way, Tonal centers (Db) and lack of
minor/major or cadences, the introduction as an example, different scales used:

Uses them on top of each other while staying in one tonal center.
Very simple and plain harmony, prefers close connections, doesn't follow classical harmonic theory, especially with chord
connections and cadences, the harmony serves the scales and melody, they're almost always the most important

The connection between introduction and first part, B > Db, Debussy uses extremely close harmonies while changing the
orchestral texture,

Another example of harmony serving to scales, between first and second themes of first section, first movement, the move
is foreshadowed by the scale used while modulating to E, both ignoring and using the scale.

With this he still has I-V and a horizontal movement, blurring the harmony and melody, creating a unique texture again

Usage of tritones in the third movement, intervallic themes, bars 187 195,
The Major 2nd interval and Ab-Bb, used throughout the entire piece. Functionally adds vagueness to the Db chord, can be
seen at the end of movement 1/3, not really being solved in the first one but finally getting solved at the end
The thematic material also use Ab-Bb as the main building block, especially in the first movement:

-Rhythm and Orcestration

Usage of rhythm is also important like the melodies, sometimes referencing the melodies just with the rhythm, near the end
(bar 237) of the third movement
Debussy also uses rhythm to have a constant flowing sound, going between instrument while keeping the rhythmic motor
active,
The orchestration is very standard instrumentation-wise, double orchestra, each section has their conventional uses,
string are used as a dynamo, longer notes in the brass, wind instruments alternate between the two, etc. Generally uses
divisi with string have a richer sound
Uses sul tasto and ponticello with strings, also uses surdine with strings and the brass

-The Rest

The music is very segmented, but it is kept together by the usage of tonal centers and melodies/scales. Some themes can be
seen between movements, also keeping the whole piece together. The intervals Ab-Bb and Major 2nd, their usage in themes
and small motivic movements in the piece
The piece wasn't received very well, it was criticized for defending traditions by some critics, however later peoples and
critics opinions on it improved
An important milestone for impressionism, Toru Takemitsu says he's his first teacher and does Quotation of Dream: Say
Sea, Take Me! on a theme from La mer.
Recordings of Karajan (Philharmonia Orchestra) and Boulez (New York Philharmonic), basically same but Boulez stays
more true to the harmony.