OK

This is a continuation of last week's diary in order to showcase Debussy's orchestral work after 1900, and it will do that, but I can't talk about Debussy's most important piece without acknowledging some of the early work of Ralph Vaughan Williams on a similar subject as well, especially since it was written at about the same time.

So, one of the first European classical pieces that used the words of an American writer as the text, and two other classical pieces that are very unlike the first one. Below the great orange bow rest, please.

We'll start with I suppose I should call it more traditional music, since all of the works (all three, that is) were composed between 1900 and 1910. Ralph Vaughan Williams (incidentally, descended from both Charles Darwin and Josiah Wedgwood), in his early thirties, in his quest to develop an authentic English strain of classical music based on folk songs (that wasn't Elgar's music, which one of Vaughan Williams's biographers calls "Empire Music") decided to do something unusual and compose a symphony based on the poems of Walt Whitman. Europeans didn't really make much use of material from the other side of the Atlantic, so this was relatively groundbreaking.  We'll just listen to the first movement of this symphony, called the "Sea" Symphony, to get a taste of what the British were doing with classical music at the turn of the 20th century. Here is the text he was setting.

From Leaves of Grass "Song of the Exposition"

Behold, the sea itself,
And on its limitless, heaving breast, the ships;
See, where their white sails, bellying in the wind, speckle the green and blue,
See, the steamers coming and going, steaming in or out of port,
See, dusky and undulating, the long pennants of smoke.

"Song for All Seas, All Ships"

Today a rude brief recitative,
Of ships sailing the seas, each with its special flag or ship-signal,
Of unnamed heroes in the ships -- of waves spreading and spreading far as the eye can reach,
Of dashing spray, and the winds piping and blowing,
And out of these a chant for the sailors of all nations,
Fitful, like a surge.

Of sea-captains young or old, and the mates, and of all intrepid sailors,
Of the few, very choice, taciturn, whom fate can never surprise nor death dismay.
Pick'd sparingly without noise by thee old ocean, chosen by thee,
Thou sea that pickest and cullest the race in time, and unitest nations,
Suckled by thee, old husky nurse, embodying thee,
Indomitable, untamed as thee.

Flaunt out O sea your separate flags of nations!
Flaunt out visible as ever the various ship-signals!
But do you reserve especially for yourself and for the soul of man one flag above all the rest,
A spiritual woven signal for all nations, emblem of man elate above death,
Token of all brave captains and all intrepid sailors and mates,
And all that went down doing their duty,
Reminiscent of them, twined from all intrepid captains young or old,
A pennant universal, subtly waving all time, o'er all brave sailors,
All seas, all ships.

and here is a ship painting, circa 1901, by a Belgian artist. It's for contrast.  You'll see why.
(American Schooner REPUBLIC, John Henry Mohrmann, 1901, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Mass.)

It takes a big English orchestra to encompass all of this: two flutes, piccolo, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani (F#2–F3), percussion (side drum, bass drum, triangle, suspended cymbal, crash cymbals), two harps, organ, and strings, soprano, baritone and chorus. Here, we have Yvonne Kenny, Brian Rayner Cook, and the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Bryden Thompson. Never mind the specifics of what the orchestra is doing, follow along with the words.

I should note that at around 3:39, when the work makes its transition from "Song of the Exposition" to "Song of the Sea" and the baritone starts to sing supported by the deeper strings and the reed winds, you hear Vaughan Williams at his most typical. But when you listen to this, you see that this work is TELLING, not showing. Whitman talks about the great democracy of the sea, and Vaughan Williams makes a great majestic show of it, with lots of brasses and lots of typical British music, some of it adapted from folk music. As we saw last week, that's not what Debussy was about in his music making at all.

Before we get to the main event, I'd like to whet your appetite with what's almost a concerto for harp and chamber orchestra, the Danses Sacree et Profane. This is Remy van Kesteren with the Utrecht Conservatorium String Orchestra led by Chris Duindam.

Listen to this the same way you listened to L'Apres-Midi d'un Faune. Grove calls this "chaste and formal." The sacred dance ends at about 4:50 and the profane dance begins; in it, the strings are somewhat more foregrounded than the harp and the tempo picks up.

And now the main event.  First, observe the title page!

Here's Debussy responding to art again, only this is from a completely different tradition. This is cropped from The Great Wave off Kanagawa, by Hokusai, one of the most important Japanese artists of the 19th Century, and it's from his series, Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji. Here's the full picture (1822-1823), in which you can see Fuji and you can see a couple of boats being threatened by the wave.
By 1900, France was awash in Japonisme, an enthusiasm for the arts, both classic and decorative, of Japan. The critics who want to link Debussy's music to art and artists, however, also want to credit the sea pictures of the great British painter Joseph Mallord William Turner as a major influence on La Mer. The painting on the album cover of the Sea Symphony, "Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth" (1842), is by Turner, and here's a better image of it from the Tate Gallery in London, sort of:
Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth
Turner is fascinating because he comes from working class origins and because he's associated with impressionism even though he precedes it by decades. There's an excellent biography of him, but I digress.

La mer, then. How does Debussy set about showing us the sea in these three symphonic sketches? First off, we're looking at music as metaphor here. As Debussy wrote in 1906

To be honest, you learn orchestration far better by listening to the sound of leaves rustling in the wind than by consulting handbooks
I'm going to be at a disadvantage here because, as I've said, my encounter with music in an academic setting was as a tenor who had to read music but didn't necessarily have to understand it. Edward Lalo said he didn't hear the sea in this music. I'd say he wasn't listening.

The orchestra: two flutes, piccolo, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, three bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, percussion (timpani, bass drum, triangle, cymbals, tam-tam [or suspended gong], glockenspiel/celesta), two harps, and strings. Each of the three sections has a somewhat different percussion section.

Part 1: "De l'aube a midi sur la mer" (timpani, cymbals, gong). Jean Martinon, Chicago Symphony Orchestra

This can be listened to without much commentary as well.  It's obvious when the sketch starts, that this IS dawn. and, as the sun grows higher in the sky, it's usually a cello or a trumpet that announces it, just like the English horn in Nuages. But things do happen.
(4:10) The day gets brighter, signaled by the celli and the horns, which are soon joined by the flutes and the reed winds.
(6:20) Another change, brought in by a solo cello, soon accompanied by the violins and the violas and then doubled by a French horn and a flute.
(7:08) And finally it's noon, brought in by the trumpets and the trombones. With Debussy, you can tell all this just by listening, and the score serves to provide the mechanics of how he does this.

Part 2: "Jeux de vagues" (triangle, cymbals, glockenspiel) Claudio Abbado, Berlin Philharmonic

I could tell you what was going on in the score, but if you've watched the ocean, you don't need any of this explained, and the camera will show you whoever has the major part of driving the movement forward at any given moment.  So just relax and listen to the Berlin Philharmonic play this beautifully.

Part 3: "Dialogue du vent et de la mer" (timpani, cymbals, bass drum, gong, glockenspiel). Gustavo Dudamel, Youth Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela

Likewise with this. Just listen, and WATCH. This is the future of classical music playing what WAS the future of classical music in 1905, when the work had its premiere in Paris. I selected this version for the passion in the performance. Yes, the sashes are in the colors of the Venezuelan flag.

I'm going to take a week off from the series (no this is emphatically NOT another TTFN diary). I almost didn't get this written because of issues with Federal Express concerning the delivery of the death certificates, and I have some academic work to do; specifically, I have to write a brand new syllabus for a course (The Social and Cultural History of the United States - I've taught the Cultural part but I have to integrate the Social part into it) that I'm teaching at a school I haven't taught at before and to get their paperwork done. As for my obligation to the Great Orange Satan, all I have is one Top Comments diary to write for the 16th (my diary for the 23rd is almost all written). I'll be back on the 24th with an investigation of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, the great orchestrator.

6:11 PM PT: I'm starting a transfer from this old laptop with a non-working DVD drive to my new sort of ultrabook, and it's going to be a long transfer that disables the one I'm typing on.  I'll assess your comments in the morning. Thanks for reading and listening to the diary!

SUBSTANTIVE UPDATE, 6:08 AM PT First, thanks, Rescue Rangers. Second, my conclusion was actually going to be a question about what I should do for the 24th. My initial impulse was to respond to an orchestration issue with Rimsky-Korsakov, specifically Scheherazade, to show how you CAN repeat the same themes for 45 minutes and vary it enough to keep the listener's interest. My other option was more Ralph Vaughan Williams. I think I have my writing orders from the comment section -- the Tallis Fantasia, The Lark Ascending and Symphony #2 (so I can take some digs at Andrew Lloyd Webber as well). Scheherazade can wait.

Originally posted to Dave in Northridge on Thu Jan 10, 2013 at 04:49 PM PST.

Also republished by DKOMA, An Ear for Music, and Community Spotlight.

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