On today’s date in 1905, Claude Debussy’s orchestral suite “La Mer” or “The Sea” was performed for the first time in Paris. Today this music is regarded as an impressionistic masterpiece, but early audiences — especially those in America — found it rough sailing.
“We clung like a drowning man to a few fragments of the tonal wreck,” wrote a 1907 Boston critic, and suggested that instead of “The Sea” Debussy should have titled his piece “Sea-Sickness.”
“The Sea is persistently ugly,” wrote The New York Times that same year. “Debussy fails to give ANY impression of the sea… There is more of a barnyard cackle in it than anything else.”
And in 1909, this on “La Mer” from The Chicago Tribune: “It is safe to say that few understood what they heard and few heard anything they understood… There are no themes… There is nothing in the way of even a brief motif that can be grasped securely enough by the ear and brain to serve as a guiding line through the tonal maze. There is no end of queer and unusual effects, no end of harmonic complications and progressions that sound so hideously ugly.”
Ah, the perils of “modern music ” in the early 20th century!
Music Played in Today's Program
Claude Debussy (1862-1918)La MerNew Philharmonia; Pierre Boulez, cond.Sony 68327