Program Notes: Debussy's La Mer

Program Notes: Debussy's La Mer

Download program page (pdf) | Buy tickets to this performance

One-minute notes:

Lyadov: The Enchanted Lake
Lyadov loved writing about “the realm of the non-existing”—here, a magical lake, misty, moonlit and shimmering.

Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3
This concerto balances moments of song-like simplicity and thunderous virtuosity. The opening Allegro is subtle and soulful, while the latter movements offer catchy themes, ingenious variations and a feather-light waltz.


Respighi: The Fountains of Rome

Respighi desired to make the fountains of Rome sing in his four-movement symphonic poem that ranges from plaintive and gentle to triumphant and bold. Each movement celebrates a particular fountain and its own unique environment, and each at a different moment of day from dawn to dusk.

Debussy: La Mer

Debussy’s classic oceanic portrait recreates the feeling of a visit to the sea. Two slower movements surround a scherzo as a kaleidoscopic stream of musical fragments eventually builds to a stormy, dissonant close.

Full program notes:

Anatol Lyadov

Born: Born: May 11, 1855, St. Petersburg, Russia

Died: August 28, 1914, Novgorod, Russia

The Enchanted Lake, Opus 62

Born into a musical family in St. Petersburg, Anatol Lyadov studied with Rimsky-Korsakov and was invited to join the faculty of the St. Petersburg Conservatory at age 23. However, for all his talent and training, he was notoriously unable to produce music. Some of this was the product of self-doubt—but he was also lazy. In the most infamous illustration of this, Lyadov had been Diaghilev’s original choice to compose the music for the Ballets Russes’ new production of The Firebird in 1910. But when Lyadov could not deliver, Diaghilev turned to an unknown young composer named Igor Stravinsky, and the course of music was changed.

“give me a fairy tale…”

As a composer, Lyadov was essentially a miniaturist, best remembered for his short piano pieces like The Musical Snuffbox. Perhaps understandably, the larger forms proved difficult for him: he wrote no operas, no symphonies, no concertos, no chamber music—his output consists exclusively of a few brief orchestral works, choral music, songs and piano pieces. Lyadov, who was very interested in Russian folk music, was happiest when he could enter the magical dream-world of folk legend. He once said: “My ideal is to find the unearthly in art. Art is the realm of the non-existing. Art is a figment, a fairy tale, a phantom. Give me a fairy tale, a dragon, a water sprite, a wood demon—give me something that is unreal, and I am happy.”

In about 1905, Rimsky-Korsakov, trying to get Lyadov to produce something worthy of his talents, suggested that he write an opera on folk legends. Lyadov liked the idea and made some sketches. And though he abandoned the project, those sketches turned into two brief orchestral pieces that have become his most popular works: both The Enchanted Lake and Kikimora spring from that “realm of the non-existing” where Lyadov was happiest.

The Enchanted Lake, first performed in 1909, is a mood-piece, muted and evocative rather than crowded with incident or drama—and one can understand why Diaghilev thought Lyadov might have been right for The Firebird. The shimmering sounds of the opening set exactly the right mood for Lyadov’s portrait of the magical lake, and throughout this brief piece he shifts colors deftly, so that his lake is by turns misty, moonlit and murmuring as the music makes its way to the subdued close.

Instrumentation: 3 flutes, 2 oboes, 3 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, timpani, bass drum, harp, celesta and strings

Program note by Eric Bromberger.

Sergei Rachmaninoff

Born: April 1, 1873, Semyonovo, district of Starorusky, Russia

Died: March 28, 1943, Beverly Hills, California

Concerto No. 3 in D minor for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 30

In October 1906 Rachmaninoff moved from Moscow to Dresden with his wife and their daughter, Irina, aiming to take himself out of circulation. He was a busy pianist and conductor—he had just concluded two years as principal conductor at the Bolshoi Opera—and he longed for time just to write. But as offers to play and conduct kept coming in, he decided to accept an invitation to visit the United States. It was for this tour that he wrote his Third Piano Concerto, and on November 28, 1909, he introduced it with Walter Damrosch and the New York Symphony. Soon after he played it again, and to his much greater satisfaction, with the New York Philharmonic under Gustav Mahler, another conductor struggling to find time to compose.

the music: from simplicity to virtuosity

allegro ma non tanto. Rachmaninoff invented arresting beginnings for all his works for piano and orchestra. In the first measure of the Third Concerto we find a quality we do not usually associate with Rachmaninoff: simplicity. For two measures, clarinet, bassoon, horn, timpani and muted strings set up a pulse against which the piano sings—or is it speaks?—a long and quiet melody, the two hands in octaves as in a Schubert piano duet. It is a lovely inspiration, that melody unfolding in subtle variation, just a few notes being continually redisposed rhythmically. Once only, to the extent of a single eighth note, does melody exceed the range of an octave; most of it stays within a fifth.

The accompaniment cost Rachmaninoff considerable trouble. He was thinking, he said, of the piano singing the melody “as a singer would sing it, and [finding] a suitable orchestral accompaniment, or rather, one that would not muffle this singing.” What he found invites, for precision and delicacy, comparison with the workmanship in Mozart’s concertos. The accompaniment does indeed let the singing through, but even while exquisitely tactful in its recessiveness, it is absolutely specific—a real and characterful invention, the fragmentary utterances of the violins now anticipating, now echoing the pianist’s song, the woodwinds sometimes and with utmost gentleness reinforcing the bass or joining the piano in a few notes of its melody. The further progress of the movement abounds in felicities and ingenuities, sharply imagined and elegantly executed.

intermezzo: adagio. “Intermezzo” is a curiously shy designation for a movement as expansive as this, though we shall discover that it is in fact all upbeat to a still more expansive Finale. It is a series of variations, broken up by a feather-light waltz. The clarinet-and-bassoon melody of the waltz is close cousin to the concerto’s principal theme, and the piano’s dizzying figuration, too, is made of diminutions of the same material.

finale: alla breve. When the Intermezzo yields to the explosive start of the Finale, we again find ourselves caught up in a torrent of virtuosity and invention. Rachmaninoff gives us the surprise of a series of variations on what pretends to be a new idea but is in fact an amalgam of the first movement’s second theme and the beginning of the finale. His evocations of earlier material are imaginative and structural achievements on a level far above the naive quotation-mongering of, say, César Franck or even Dvořák.

Rachmaninoff was anxious to put his best foot forward in America. His Second Concerto had already been played in New York, and Rachmaninoff wanted his new work to convey a clear sense of his growing powers as composer and pianist. It does have features in common with the Second: the sparkling, dense, yet always lucid piano style, a certain melancholy to the song, an extroverted rhetorical stance, the apotheosized ending, even the final YUM-pa-ta-TUM cadential formula that is as good as a signature. But the differences are even more important, and they are essentially matters of ambition and scope. The procedures that hold this work together are far beyond the capabilities of the composer of the Second Concerto eight years earlier.

Also, much more is asked of the pianist. The Third Concerto makes immense demands on stamina, the orchestral passages that frame the Intermezzo being the soloist’s only moments of respite. Rachmaninoff sees the soloist not merely as someone who can sing soulfully and thunder imposingly, but as an alert, flexible, responsive musician who knows how to listen, blend and accompany. And even in this non-prima-donna role the challenge is greater here than in the Second Concerto.

Instrumentation: solo piano with orchestra comprising 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, suspended cymbal and strings

Program note excerpted from the late Michael Steinberg’s The Concerto: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press, 1998), used with permission.

Ottorino Respighi

Born: July 9, 1879, Bologna, Italy

Died: April 18, 1936, Rome, Italy

The Fountains of Rome

Ottorino Respighi’s three sets of Roman tone poems—The Fountains of Rome (1916), The Pines of Rome (1924) and Roman Festivals (1928)—are among the most popular of all orchestral works, but their early success was precarious, and the discouraged composer almost abandoned the concept. In 1916 Respighi, then a professor of composition at the Conservatory of St. Cecilia in Rome, composed a suite for orchestra inspired by four of Rome’s striking fountains. The composer had high hopes for this music, but with an apparently indifferent performance, it fell flat at its premiere in March 1917.

When Arturo Toscanini saw the score he asked to perform it at a concert in Rome to benefit Italian artists wounded in World War I. Respighi was too demoralized to attend, and predictably, Toscanini’s performance in February 1918 was so incandescent that it swept the audience away. The firm of Ricordi published the score, and The Fountains of Rome quickly established an international reputation for its surprised composer.

expressing “sentiments and visions”

The influences on the Roman trilogy have often been noted. Respighi’s studies with Rimsky-Korsakov show up in the sumptuous sound of the orchestra, while Richard Strauss’ tone poems provide the model for this sort of orchestral pictorialism. Yet Respighi transcends those influences: he writes for a larger, more varied orchestra than Rimsky-Korsakov ever used, and his musical aims are different from those of Strauss. While Strauss used the orchestra to tell a story, Respighi is not so much interested in musical narrative as he is in creating atmosphere.

And Respighi was a master at evoking atmosphere. He made his intentions clear in a preface to the score: “In this symphonic poem the composer has endeavored to give expression to the sentiments and visions suggested to him by four of Rome’s fountains, contemplated at the hour in which their character is most in harmony with the surrounding landscape, or in which their beauty appears most impressive to the observer.”

synopses from the composer

In the score, Respighi also provided brief synopses of the four movements of The Fountains of Rome, which are played without pause.

the Fountain of Valle Giulia at dawn. The first part of the poem, inspired by the Fountain of Valle Giulia, depicts a pastoral landscape; droves of cattle pass and disappear in the fresh, damp mists of a Roman dawn.

the Triton Fountain in the morning. A sudden loud and insistent blast of horns above the trills of the whole orchestra introduces the second part, the Triton Fountain. It is like a joyous call, summoning troops of naiads and tritons, who come running up, pursuing each other and mingling in a frenzied dance between the jets of water.

the Fountain of Trevi at mid-day. Next there appears a solemn theme, borne on the undulations of the orchestra. It is the Fountain of Trevi at mid-day. The solemn theme, passing from the woodwinds to the brass instruments, assumes a triumphal character. Trumpets peal; across the radiant surface of the water there passes Neptune’s chariot, drawn by seahorses and followed by a train of sirens and tritons. The procession then vanishes, while faint trumpet blasts resound in the distance.

the Villa Medici Fountain at sunset. The fourth part, the Villa Medici Fountain, is announced by a sad theme, which rises above a subdued warbling. It is the nostalgic hour of sunset. The air is full of the sound of tolling bells, birds twittering, leaves rustling. Then all dies peacefully into the silence of the night.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, suspended cymbal, triangle, glockenspiel, chimes, 2 harps, piano, celesta, organ and strings

Program note by Eric Bromberger.

Claude Debussy

Born: August 22, 1862, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France

Died: March 25, 1918, Paris, France

La Mer

In the summer of 1903, the 41-year-old Debussy took a cottage in the French wine country, where he set to work on a new orchestral piece inspired by his feelings about the sea. To André Messager he wrote, “I expect you will say that the hills of Burgundy aren’t washed by the sea and that what I’m doing is like painting a landscape in a studio, but my memories are endless and are in my opinion worth more than the real thing, which tends to pull down one’s ideas too much.”

the sea as a concept

Had Richard Strauss written this work, he would have made us hear the thump of waves along the shoreline, the cries of wheeling sea-birds, the hiss of foam across the sand. Debussy’s aims were far different: he wanted this music to give us the feeling of being in the ocean’s presence, to feel the idea, particularly his own idea, of the ocean. Thus La Mer sets out not to make us see whitecaps—but to awaken in us a sense of the sea’s elemental power and beauty.

La Mer consists of two moderately paced movements surrounding a scherzo, created from seeming fragments of musical materials. We discover hints of themes, rhythmic shapes and flashes of color that reappear throughout the work, like kaleidoscopic bits in an evolving mosaic of color and rhythm.

from dawn to noon on the sea. The work begins with a murmur, quiet yet strong. Out of darkness, glints of color and motion emerge, and solo trumpet and English horn share a fragmentary tune that will also return in the final movement. As the morning brightens, the music becomes more animated, and a wealth of ideas follows: swirling rhythms, a noble horn chorale, a dancing figure for the cello section. At the movement’s close, the horn chorale builds to an unexpectedly powerful climax. Out of this splendid sound, a solitary brass chord winds the music into silence.

play of the waves. Opening with shimmering swirls of color, the second movement is brilliant, dancing and surging throughout—it has a sense of fun and play, as a scherzo should. One moment it can be sparkling and light, the next it will surge up darkly. In the delicate close, solo instruments seem to evaporate into the shining mist.

dialogue of wind and sea. The mood changes sharply at the beginning of the final movement, which Debussy specifies should sound “animated and tumultuous.” The ominous growl of lower strings prefaces a restatement of the trumpet tune from the very beginning, and soon the horn chorale returns as well. Woodwinds sing gently and wistfully before the music builds to a huge explosion. Moments later their tune returns in a touch of pure instrumental magic: against rippling harps and the violins’ high harmonics, solo flute brings back this melody with the greatest delicacy. The effect is extraordinary—suddenly we feel a sense of enormous space and calm. Yet within seconds this same shape roars out with all the power of the full orchestra. Earlier themes are recalled and whipped into the vortex as the music hurtles to a tremendous climax, with dissonant brass shrieking out the final chord.

Debussy may be popularly identified as the composer of “impressionistic” moods, full of muted color and subtle understatement. The conclusion of La Mer, however, is anything but the music of water lilies: it is driven by a force beyond human imagination. The normally understated Debussy makes us feel that wild strength in the most violent ending he ever wrote.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 cornets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, tamtam, triangle, glockenspiel, 2 harps and strings

Program note by Eric Bromberger.

Minnesota Orchestra Staff