Claude Debussy: Refracting His Music through Art

Claude Monet (French, 1840–1926)
Mouth of the Seine at Honfleur, 1865
Oil on canvas
The Norton Simon Foundation, F.1973.33.2.P

Claude Monet painted this picture, Mouth of the Seine at Honfleur, in his Paris studio, away from the sea, based on sketches he had made. In a similar style, Debussy, while composing his orchestral work La mer, spent most of his time away from the sea; rather, he looked to seascapes that were depicted in visual art and literature for inspiration for his musical sketches. The result is an innovative departure from the usual musical gestures employed to depict the movement of water; rather, Debussy employs the orchestral palette in an evocative manner, like a musical onomatopoeia.

On a deeper level, it is written both in the shadow of and a rebellion against Richard Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde—the sea is a metaphor for sensuous passion.

We’ve just listened to the beginning of the piece, From Dawn to Midday on the Sea. The slumbering sea is awaking, moving in the changing daylight. Now we will turn to the finale, Dialogue Between the Wind and the Waves. The wind picks up, the waves surge, and after a storm, a triumphant conclusion celebrates the seas majesty and force.