Debussy and Debauchery: La Mer and La Riot





By Selena Puente

Contributing Writer




Claude Debussy, famous French composer, circa 1908. -Photo courtesy of
Claude Debussy, famous French composer, circa 1908.
-Photo courtesy of

As a lover of punk music and classical works, the most piquant stories that call from the classical world are the oddball instances where composers, symphony-goers or the orchestra behaved in a way that was contrary to the prevalent civilized culture. Debussy’s premiere of his “La Mer” was one of these times, and reminds us all that even the most delicate arts require a tenacity of spirit when the going gets tough. During rehearsals for the piece, the musicians protested politely by tying bandanas around their bowes, a practice which seems subtle now, but held great power when Mendelssohn, Debussy and company were crafting their masterpieces.

Roy Howat, a Scottish musicologist who specializes in French music, claims that Debussy’s music stood out because it followed the same golden ratio used in the Parthenon, some of Salvador Dali’s surrealist work and some of Bartok’s quartets. After inspection, the piece itself is not sonically controversial. It is succinctly organized into three sections: “From Dawn to Midday On the Sea”, “Play of the Waves” and “Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea.” The first movement is so purely evocative of sunlight dappled water that fellow composer, Erik Satie, claimed that he enjoyed listening to the first movement at precisely a quarter to 11. Although Satie may have enjoyed the piece, it generated upheaval due to the fact that Debussy had recently left his wife for a young, attractive singer. The judgment from his community increased tenfold when his new squeeze, Emma Bardac, gave birth to their child only two weeks after “La Mer” premiered, and his former wife attempted suicide.

This sort of resistance to a composer also happened to Debussy’s friend, Igor Stravinsky. When his famous “Rite of Spring” premiered, Stravinsky wrote that “mild protests against the music could be heard from the beginning.” Ironically, the riotous music that Stravinsky created stacked the same chords used by Debussy to make a fuller piece.

The fascination with “La Mer” has endured, and even Nine Inch Nails wrote a song inspired by the sketches. It is difficult to look at their attraction to the piece as complete happenstance, given the song’s atmospheric and mostly docile instrumentation. The most likely explanation is that the attraction of this piece is partially the music itself, along with an intrinsic spirit that the song carries. Debussy himself conceded, “We must agree that the beauty of a work of art will always remain a mystery, in other words, we can never be absolutely sure how it’s made.” The world of classical music is one of mystery but beyond the beauty is tumult and this shows that in all beautiful things, there is strife worth braving, and an unseen structure to the chaos.


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