Following in the footsteps of Liszt, Wagner and Rimsky-Korsakov who had set examples for the poetic depiction of scenes of nature in music, Claude Debussy won a reputation as a maestro of musical “painting”. That last word conveys most clearly the essence of the incredibly subtle sounds that call forth instinctive associations with the canvasses of the French impressionists.
According to the memoirs of Marguerite Long, there was a particularly mysterious note in Debussy’s attitude to the sea. “Can you hear the sea?” he would say, “The sea is the most musical thing that there is...” Debussy was drawn by the endlessly changing colours of the sea and the ocean, the reflections of the sky, thundery clouds, the dazzling sun and the moonlight... Calm and mirror-like, majestic billows, lazily approaching the shore from the horizon, seething waves and the quietly splashing sea... Debussy gave spirit to the sea, imbuing his tableaux of it with some meaning known only to him. Does it really come as any surprise that he “repeated” the words of Musorgsky whom he so admired (which he could not actually have known!) – “...The idea of a troubled sea is incomparably more threatening and imposing than a storm”?
The three symphonic sketches La Mer are woven together as a symphony – specifically a “French” symphony, which generally has three movements. The music flows from the slow and fundamentally contemplative first section De l’aube à midi sur la mer (From Dawn to Noon on the Sea) to Jeux de vagues (Play of the Waves), a kind of symphonic scherzo, with its tumultuous “spills” of sound and vividly dance-like rhythms, and, ultimately, to the final Allegro which is called Dialogue du vent et de la mer (Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea). The triumphant coda of the finale is structured around the extravagant final use of “the theme of the sea” that creates an arch between the start of the symphony and its conclusion.
La Mer was first performed on 15 October 1905 in Paris under the baton of Camille Chevillard. But Debussy’s score would only meet with true success three years later when it was conducted by the composer himself. In 1913 Debussy conducted La Mer in St Petersburg and Moscow.
Maurice Ravel composed his concerti – his last major works – in 1929–1931, a time when his health was gradually abating due to severe illness. But there is no trace of that in the music of Piano Concerto No. 1, about which the composer said “This is a concerto in the exact sense of the word: it was written in the style of concerti by Mozart and Saint-Saëns. I believe that the music of a concerto can be fun and dazzling without claiming to have much depth or dramatic effect... in my Concerto there are certain elements borrowed from jazz, but in moderation.”
The crack of the whip that opens the first movement of the Concerto immediately introduces the world to the melodies of Basque folk dance – their energetic rhythm and the varicoloured timbres (the piano is initially an orchestral instrument) contrasts with the much more concentrated songful second theme that is commenced with the piano solo. Here we can recognise the composer’s beloved “Spanish melancholy”, but we can also readily hear jazz notes, similar to Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (which Ravel highly praised). The themes are broadly exposed, one following another, blending into an impetuous toccata development and an enchanting and energetic coda. The slow Adagio is the work’s lyrical centre, the Concerto’s culmination: the piano solo begins an extended instrumental aria that is taken up by the orchestra, enlivened with melodic designs and ornamentation as well as diverse mixes of timbre. The finale is, once again, a toccata – this time grotesque, at times reminiscent of a tense and impulsive tarantella in the jazz style.
For three years (1892 – 1895) Antonín Dvořák lived in America, where he had been invited to lead the New York Conservatory. These years proved a fruitful period in the composer’s life. They brought such momentous works as the Ninth Symphony, the Cello Concerto, the Biblical Songs, instrumental chamber ensembles (String Quartet in F major, Quintet in E-flat major)… The great Czech musician was deeply affected by the beauty of American folklore. “The most impressive of American songs are the ‘plantation melodies’ and songs of slaves,” Dvořák remarked in an interview, “It is of no great significance from where the creators of America’s songs of the futures will draw their inspiration – Negro or Creole roots, redskin chants or from the plaintive songs of a German or Norwegian pining for his native land. The shoots of the best music are hidden in all tribes, mixed together in this vast country…” Americans justly give a high value to Dvořák’s contribution to the founding of their national musical culture.
The Ninth Symphony, which the composer gave the subheading From the New World, was his last and greatest work in the genre. Having absorbed complex elements of Indian melodies and Negro spirituals, alongside furious sounding echoes of Czech refrains, Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony, beginning with its first performance in New York on 16 December 1893, has gone on to win world glory.