The original cover of the full score to Debussy’s La Mer featuring a detail from “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” by Hokusai


The full "Great Wave off Kanagawa" by Japanese painter Hokusai

The full “Great Wave off Kanagawa” by Japanese painter Hokusai with Mount Fuji in the background while a boat does battle with the waves.

Debussy is so crazy amazing, it really defies description!

His music for piano was among that which really turned me on to music in a serious minded way when I was a kid. A few weeks ago, I was restudying his “La Mer” and thinking about how equally brilliant and inventive he was in the two very different mediums of piano and orchestra.

Of course there are many piano/orchestra composers, but few whose piano AND orchestral style were so equally incredibly new and unique. Neither Wagner nor R. Strauss did much for piano and Chopin certainly did nothing for the orchestra. Liszt probably came closest to what I’m talking about, but yet the newness of the musical language and the techniques used and developed to express it proposed by Debussy for the piano and the individual instruments of the orchestra were new in an even more significant way I think.

Maybe the most noteworthy thing about this is the utter disparity of one of the principal methods of technical expression between the piano and the orchestra. I’m referring to:
A. the damper pedal of the piano, which of course extends sounds until the strings stop ringing of their own accord, or when the player releases the pedal…and
B. the crescendo on a sustained note possible on every instrument of the wind and string family. The harp and percussion play a pivotal role in bridging these two sound worlds and create incredibly beautiful colors in the process.

It’s no accident that one of my favorite early works that I played by Debussy was a musical description of the magical waters featured in the piano prelude “The Engulfed Cathedral”. His output and that of Ravel and their Italian counterpart, Respighi, include more fountains, pools, lakes, oceans, rain and any other collection of H2O than you can believe, but Debussy really stands at the beginning of this watery legacy…with indebtedness to Wagner, natürlich!

SSO September 27, 2014
Concert Title
Ravel Bolero
Debussy La Mer
Mussorgsky/Ravel Pictures at an Exhibition

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