Blogging The Art of the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra: Debussy's La Mer

Another in a continuing series about the music to be played by the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra this season.

This is the next stop on my blogs on the pieces to be performed by the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra during its 2012-2013 season.  La Mer (1905) by Claude Debussy (1862-1918) is the second piece on the IPO concert of the 13th of January 2013.  You can get details about the complete concerts from the IPO website.  (This blog is NOT officially sponsored or cleared by the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra.)


I’ve always loved Debussy’s music.  To some extent, I think of Debussy’s music as something that everyone can love because he only asks for a directly pleasurable and emotional response--not an analytic one.  It’s interesting to try to understand how he makes his magic, but the archaic modes, the whole-tone scales, the directionless chords, the thematic transformations, etc. are really beside the point when one is listening.  The analytic, dissecting listener has no advantage over anyone just aurally drinking it in. 


Maybe it would help to use the terms of Aaron Copland from his book, What to Listen for in Music.  He divides the listening experience into (1) the sensuous plane, (2) the expressive plane, and (3) the sheerly musical plane.  The sensuous plane is just the pleasure of experiencing the sound of the musical tones without really attending to any “message.”  For instance, I really don’t know anything about the music of India.  It is tuned in a different manner than Western music.  It has scales and forms which I have never learned.  If I had some music performed by Ravi Shankar on in the background while I was typing this, I might enjoy the interesting sounds.  But I wouldn’t know if what I was hearing was a happy piece or melancholy.  The sound for sound’s sake is the sensuous plane.  Yes, the sounds that Debussy produces are particularly varied and pretty, lovely even.  But there is a bit more to it.


Maybe my almost unconscious metaphor about “drinking in” Debussy’s music can be expanded.  Drinking is the active occurrence of bringing the fluid within one’s being.  It’s different than having the liquid just splash against you.  To carry this drink analogy slightly further, when I drink a glass of wine, I can taste it and feel the effect that it has on me.  Maybe that is more akin to Copland’s expressive plane.  I remember, the composer Elliot Carter (now over 100 years old and still composing!) saying, in a post-concert conversation when he was a mere pup of about 90, “Pay attention!” to music. 


To continue with the “drink” metaphor, like my lack of knowledge of Indian music, unfortunately, I don’t really have ‘knowledge’ of wine.  I can’t break down the taste of the wine into elements and varieties of flavors or relate what this vintner was trying to do as compared to other similar wines over the years.  This lack of experience might make me feel guilty if someone gave me a glass of really expensive wine.  Maybe I would appreciate that something complex was occurring in my tasting.  But maybe that quality of wine would be wasted on me.


It is in this sense that Debussy offers an almost “guilt-free” experience.  If you are paying attention, you are “getting it” about as much as anyone else.  There certainly is a “sheerly musical plane,” but Debussy takes great pains to make this less important.  He tries to avoid any pleasure in dissection.


I think that there is another way that I can say this.  I was at a concert this weekend by the young genius, composer-pianist (and violinist), Conrad Tao.  Tao made the point that Impressionist composers (like Debussy or Ravel) seldom have a “narrative” associated with their works. He was talking about Ravel’s Ondine which has a plot that is like a prototype to “The Little Mermaid” story.  (There is also a piece by Debussy with that title, too.) 


To have a narrative in an abstract piece of music, the themes have to be understood separately almost as characters in a play--which is not generally the Impressionist modus operandi.  But it is exactly what happens in a Classical-era (Haydn, Mozart, or Beethoven) composition.  So “getting” this requires a bit more musical knowledge or attention.  And it also really helps to understand the form in which these “characters” are interacting.  There are several minor-key pieces by Mozart where the second theme group is in a major key in the beginning but minor when the themes are brought back.  This can convey an incredibly sad effect as in this Violin Sonata in E-minor written about the time when Mozart’s mother died when they had traveled to Paris alone together to seek out a position for Mozart.


On my recent vacation, thinking about writing about Debussy, I realized that I really had no biography of him.  Though I had, by coincidence, just watched “The Debussy Film” by the late Ken Russell which was strange and wonderful (though not as strange as the scene of Ann Margaret getting sudsidized and smeared with beans in Russell’s “Tommy”).  Russell’s movie was a dream-like, film-within-a-film piece where the actors, as a coterie of artists, begin to assume the personalities of the circle of characters in Debussy’s life. 


One scene held a déjà vu experience for me.  There is a 60’s party in “The Debussy Film” where the “actor,” at this point channeling Debussy, breaks up the mindless fun of the festivities by turning off The Kinks and putting on Debussy’s Danses Sacrée et Profane.  In college (no, I was in college in the 70’s), I had a druggy roommate who would have parties in our packed dorm room which he would finally break up by turning off the rock music and putting on one of my classical LP’s.  As he once told me, “Nothing breaks up a party like old Clod duhBYOOsee.”  But his girlfriend, much to his dismay, began to fall for the Debussy, and he’d have to hear it during quiet times  Anyway, in the Russell film, out of spite, a girl does a Youtube acceptable striptease during the “profane” dance.


 La mer is in three movements: “From dawn to midday on the sea”; “Play of the waves”; and "Dialogue between wind and waves."  But it is not a symphony with themes that are dramatic characters that we follow but a quasi onomatopoeic recreation of the sights, sounds, breezes, sprays, and emotions that the sea arouses. Happy listening!  And don’t forget to get your tickets to the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra performance, January 19th  2013 under new music director, David Danzmayr.   The phone number is (708) 481-7774.

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