La mer, trois esquisses symphoniques pour orchestre (French for The sea, three symphonic sketches for orchestra), or simply La mer (The Sea), L. 109, CD. 111, is an orchestral composition by the French composer Claude Debussy.
Composed between 1903 and 1905, the piece was premiered in Paris in October 1905. It was initially not well received. Even some who had been strong supporters of Debussy’s work were unenthusiastic, even though La mer presented three key aspects of Debussy’s aesthetic: Impressionism, Symbolism and Japonism. But the work was performed in the US in 1907 and Britain in 1908; after its second performance in Paris, in 1908, it quickly became one of Debussy’s most admired and frequently performed orchestral works.
The first audio recording of the work was made in 1928. Since then, orchestras and conductors from around the world have set it down in many studio or live concert recordings.
La mer was the second of Debussy’s three orchestral works in three sections, the other being Nocturnes (1892–1899) and Images pour orchestre (1905-1912). The first, the Nocturnes, was premiered in Paris in 1901, and though it had not made any great impact with the public it was well reviewed by musicians including Paul Dukas, Alfred Bruneau, and Pierre de Bréville. Debussy conceived the idea of a more complex tripartite orchestral piece, and began work in August 1903. He was usually a slow worker, and although the composition of La mer took him more than a year and a half, this was unusually quick progress by his standards, particularly at a time of upheaval in his personal life. He began composing the work while visiting his parents-in-law in Burgundy; by the time it was complete, he had left his wife and was living with Emma Bardac, who was pregnant with Debussy’s child.
Debussy retained fond childhood memories of the beauties of the sea, but when composing La mer he rarely visited it, spending most of his time far away from large bodies of water. He drew inspiration from art, “preferring the seascapes available in painting and literature” to the physical sea. Although the detailed scheme of the work changed during its composition, Debussy decided from the outset that it was to be “three symphonic sketches” with the title La mer. In a letter to André Messager, he described the planned sections as “Mère belle aux Îles Sanguinaires”, “Jeu de vagues”, and “Le vent fait danser la mer”. The first of these, inspired by a short story of the same name by Camille Mauclair, was abandoned in favour of a less restrictive theme, the sea from dawn to midday. The last was also dropped, as too reminiscent of ballet, and the less specific theme of the dialogue between the wind and the sea took its place.
Debussy completed La mer 5 March 1905 and took the proofs to correct on holiday at the Grand Hotel, Eastbourne on the English Channel coast, at which he arrived 23 July 1905, he described Eastbourne to his publisher, Durand, as “a charming peaceful spot: the sea unfurls itself with an utterly British correctness.” He arranged the piece for piano four hands in 1905, and in 1909 Durand published a second edition of La mer with the composer’s revisions.
Debussy – La Mer – Music | History