Claude Debussy: La Mer

Ravel and Satie have been perennial favorites for me and I started listening to more of Debussy’s symphonic works. I believe I read somewhere that La Mer was the piece that really made people sit up and take notice of Debussy.

His music is called Impressionistic and was a conscious break from the tradition that started with German classicism, ran through German romanticism, and ended in bombastic music of Wagner. Here are two quotes, one by Satie and the other by Debussy which show their thinking on this matter:

Satie: “I explained to Debussy how we French needed to break away from the Wagnerian adventure, which did not correspond with our natural aspirations. And I told him that I was not at all anti-wagnerian, but that we needed a music of our own – preferably without saurerkraut.”

Debussy: “Wagner was a beautiful sunset mistaken for a dawn. There will always be periods of imitation or influence whose duration and nationality one cannot foretell – a simple truth and a law of evolution. These periods are necessary to those who love well-traveled and tranquil paths. They permit others to go much further.”

For those classically oriented audiences back then, La Mer must have seemed chaotic with its focus more on the colors and emotional impressions that different chord and instruments evoke and less on rhythm and form. Debussy tries to paint a musical picture of what it is like to be aboard a wind-powered ship, gently rolling on the swells under a canopy of a billion stars. I’d give him an A+.

I first heard La Mer in my junior year of college, in 1976. At the end of the school year, I returned home once again to find work in a factory. My brother Ken told me his company, Excel in Elkhart Indiana, was hiring. He had gotten a job a job there as their insurance and safety specialist. Ken had graduated with a degree in elementary education in 1974, but he had not liked student teaching.

The great passion of his life has been emergency rescue work. Our dad was a volunteer fireman, and in high school and college Ken had also helped out on fire calls. At one time, he ahd wanted to become a professional firefighter in South Bend, which was the only route to the job he really wanted: a paramedic. I don’t know if this is still true, but at the time those jobs were controlled by local politics. Unfortunately, we were registered democrats and South Bend had a republican mayor, so Ken was turned down when he applied.

But he threw himself into his job, and became quite good at it over the years. Outside of work, he became the chief of the local volunteer fire department and at work he instituted a number of safety programs and became quite an expert in his field. When I was back home for my parents’ 60th wedding anniversary in 1999, he told us that his company had been bought out by another and after over 20 years there, he was being down-sized. What a kick in the head. He landed on his feet, but at the time, it was dodgy.

I felt for Ken. I’ve had about 6 different employers since moving to the Washington, DC area and have had about 10 different jobs. So I have had to learn to deal with such upheavals. But in 1989, when I was laid off my first job, it seemed like the end of the world. So I know what he’s going through.

Back in 1976, however, business was good and Ken’s company hired about a hundred or so college students for the summer. Ken said it was well paid, so I told my friend, Thom Klem, and we both applied and got hired. Excel made pre-framed glass windows for the auto industry. They had three different operations: one for building the frames, another for glazing the glass, and the third for shipping. The windows they turned out were used as removable sun roofs for sports cars, sliding back windows for the cabs of pickup trucks, and large tinted windows for the back of customized vans. Oh yes, in another part of the plant, they also built doors for the cabs of huge semi-trailer rigs.

It was a pretty well-run factory. I started out working on a glazing furnace. I sat on a chair with a bin of safety glass on my right and another of frame sides on my left. I would pick up the slotted frames, squirt some liquid rubber in the grooves, press them into place on the sides of a piece of glass and attach the window to an overhead conveyor chain which snaked around the room and in and out of a huge oven. The oven made it pretty sweaty in there, and because of that it was one of the higher paid jobs in this part of the plant. Jobs were assigned by a bidding process the winning bid going to the person with the highest seniority. However, when a guy who had been hired the week before me bid on and got my job, I was not really disappointed.

Most of the college guys who worked there were of the friendly jock variety. They told funny jokes, got drunk every night, and talked about girls and the Rolling Stones. Needless to say, Klem–a Chinese and History major–and I–a French Literature major–had little in common with our co-workers and we sought each other out on breaks and at lunch. Sometimes we sat and talked. Other times we would just sit an read. A friend from college, knowing my affinity for Haiku sent me a book of Japanese Zen koans, which I would read on break and then ponder as I worked on the mind-numbing assembly line or swept up a pile of trash. Thom was reading Anatole France’s “Penguin Island.” He’d already been to France and told me stories to get me ready for the next school year.

My plan for the Fall was to live in free apartment my girl friend had found at Indiana University. She got it for free for being the janitor there and she was going to take a semester off and go to England in the fall. In the Spring, I would take a semester off and go to Paris to study. One day Thom gave me a copy of a book called “Village in the Vaucluse,” which was a sociological study of a small French town in the Midi done in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He was so considerate: he wanted me to see the charm and quaintness of French village life, which he assured me still existed well in to the 1970s.

Quite a contrast from the factory. But you know, I actually liked working at this factory. It wasn’t an overly dangerous place; the workers–even the lifers–were closer to my age; and as I said, the pay was good.

And the money I earned was used to buy my plane ticket to Paris laster that year.

Download MP3s or buy CD of Debussy: La Mer

Advertisements

About kurtnemes
Writer and Education Professional. Specialties include Ethics, Personal Memoir, Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity (& what interests me.)

One Response to Claude Debussy: La Mer

  1. kvennarad says:

    I always think of this as Debussy’s most ‘Romantic’ work, despite his conscious moving away from Germanic Romanticism, because what strikes me about it is its sense of the ‘sublime’.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: