“La mer est plus belle”, L. 81 no. 1 (1891)
Published 1891 [voice and piano], from Trois mélodies, no. 1, Paris, Hamelle, by Claude Achille Debussy (1862-1918) , set to a text by Paul Verlaine (1844-1896) , no title, from Sagesse, in Sagesse III, no. 15, published 1880, dedicated to Ernest Chausson.
References to the sea abound in Debussy’s works, sometimes by directly giving them titles that refer to the ocean or water, as well as the surging rolling of waves of sound that characterises so much of his compositional style. It appears that references to the sea also refer like a leitmotif through his writings and correspondence. Simon Trezise writes: “In 1889, as a young man away from his first great successes, he was asked in a questionnaire what he would like to be, if not himself, to which he replied ‘a sailor'”. [Simon Trezise, Debussy: La Mer, Cambridge University press, Australia, 1994, P.1]
Impressionist composers were naturally drawn to depictions of the elements. Water-based titles of works are strewn throughout Debussy’s list of works: Le jet d’eau, La mer est plus belle, Jardins sous la pluie, Reflets dans l’eau, Poissons d’or, La cathédrale engloutie, Ondine, En bateau, Pour remercier la pluie au matin, Sirènes, La mer, De l’aube à midi sur la mer, Jeux de vagues, Dialogue du vent et de la mer. References to water also abound in the mélodies for voice and piano. Debussy carefully selected them from the works of many symbolic poets, including Verlaine, Baudelaire and Mallarmé.
In the great orchestral cycle La Mer, the depiction of the sea is – for all its richness – a musical depiction of the sea. The Japanese painting with which it is so closely associated – despite its almost religious awe at the beauty and power of nature, is still a depiction of the sea. The song, La mer est plus belle is minute in comparison and even in this small scale it draws in a multitude of references.
The song was written in 1891, the same year as the Fêtes Galantes Première Livre. Debussy had already written some substantial works in the song genre: Mandoline, and the cycles Ariettes oubliées, and Poèmes de Baudelaire. Some piano works later to grow to fame were already behind him: the two Arabesques, Suite Bergamasque which contains the almost-overplayed Clair de Lune. The great Impressionist works were still to come: the masterful but not unflawed opera Pelléas et Mélisande, the great piano works such as the two books of Préludes, and the great orchestral works Prélude à l’après-midi d’un Faune and La Mer.
Few works seem to sum up Impressionist painting as well as the 30 paintings Claude Monet made of Rouen Cathedral around the time this song was composed. When Monet painted the Rouen Cathedral series, he had long since been impressed with the way light imparts to a subject a distinctly different character at different times of the day and the year, and as atmospheric conditions change. For Monet, the effects of light on a subject became as important as the subject itself. Historically, the series was well-timed. In the early 1890s, France was seeing a revival of interest in Catholicism and the subject was well-received. Apart from its religious significance, Rouen Cathedral, built in the Gothic style, represented all that was best in French history and culture, being a style of architecture that was admired and adopted by many European countries during the Middle Ages.
Oriental(ist) art, as well as the great wave of Impressionist painters obviously greatly inspired Debussy. There is a dreamy, indistinct and almost “luminous” quality which Debussy shares with the work of the great Impressionists. His music seems to attempt to recreate the subtle nuances in shading and light, which was the major characteristic of Impressionism. The object is of less importance than the effect of the light which is projected on it.
The religious references in the song relate to Mary’s religious title as “Star of the Sea”. While not creating a religious tone as such in the song, there is a pious turn of harmony which is very effective, somehow softening the torrents of the ocean at the mere mention of Mary and her prayers. Allusion to her prayers also inspired a Leitmotif in the accompaniment.
Our Lady, Star of the Sea is an ancient title for the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus Christ. The words Star of the Sea are a translation of the Latin title Stella Maris. The title was used to emphasize Mary’s role as a sign of hope and as a guiding star for Christians, especially gentiles, whom the Old Testament Israelites metaphorically referred to as The Sea, meaning anyone beyond the “coasts”, or, that is to say, sociopolitical, and religious (Mosaic law), borders of Israelite territory. Under this title, the Virgin Mary is believed to intercede as a guide and protector of those who travel or seek their livelihoods on the sea. This aspect of the Virgin has led to Our Lady, Star of the Sea, being named as patroness of the Catholic missions to seafarers, the Apostleship of the Sea, and to many coastal churches being named Stella Maris or Mary, Star of the Sea. This devotion towards Mary with this ancient title is popular throughout the Catholic world.
Debussy’s religious views were not conventional:
“I do not practise religion in accordance with the sacred rites. I have made mysterious Nature my religion. I do not believe that a man is any nearer to God for being clad in priestly garments, nor that one place in a town is better adapted to meditation than another. When I gaze at a sunset sky and spend hours contemplating its marvelous ever-changing beauty, an extraordinary emotion overwhelms me. Nature in all its vastness is truthfully reflected in my sincere though feeble soul. Around me are the trees stretching up their branches to the skies, the perfumed flowers gladdening the meadow, the gentle grass-carpetted earth, … and my hands unconsciously assume an attitude of adoration. … To feel the supreme and moving beauty of the spectacle to which Nature invites her ephemeral guests! … that is what I call prayer.” [Claude Debussy: His Life and Works (1933) by Léon Vallas, p. 225]
The major representatives of the Symbolist movement affecting Debussy are the French poets Verlaine and Mallarmé. As the name implies, among the primary goals of the Symbolist movement was the usage of symbols, images to represent reality, and to evoke meanings beyond the material world, falling into the higher realities of the world of illusion, of dreams. Water suggested calm tranquillity, introspection. Fire was a symbol of passion, rage, etc. Symbolism is technically considered to be a literary school, popular in Paris in the 1880’s and 1890s and is identified with ambiguity and indirect communication and use of symbols. The Symbolist movement in literature truly closely paralleled the impressionistic aspects in music.
Download Free Sheet Music of Debussy’s “La mer est plus belle”, L. 81 no. 1 (1891)
La mer est plus belle, L. 81 no. 1 (1891) (Debussy & Verlaine) G Minor.pdf
An Analysis of “La mer est plus belle”, L. 81 no. 1 (1891)
La mer est plus belle
Que les cathédrales,
Berceuse de râles,
La mer sur qui prie
La Vierge Marie!
The sea is more beautiful Than any cathedral; A nurse faithful, A cradle-song of groans; The sea over which prays The Virgin Mary!
Marked a vigorous Animé, the song launches forth into the crashing waves from the first note. Thundering and rolling arpeggios in D major, sounding like the Tonic key. However, the Key Signature is G Minor, so we are setting sail on the Dominant Chord. The voice, also marked Forte has longer note-values against the rippling piano, making it a very powerful oration, a sailor on the bough of the ship – heading straight into the waves, intoxicated by the power and beauty. Huge, dramatic shifts of harmony from Dominant to Flattened Seventh and back again set up an unusual and unsettling harmonic progression (D major to F Major, and later again from G Major to B Flat Major). Is this the cradle song of groans to which the text refers? Debussy definitely emphases the words “Berceuse de râles” (Lullaby of groans) with a lurching excursion to B flat major on the off-beat – the unsettling groan of an unexpected wave crashing into the ship? The voice reaches its first climax on the high F of “La Mer sur qui prie”. While notated in G minor, we experience the return to D major on the name of Mary, as a return from the Flattened Sixth to the Dominant. Debussy introduces two simple Belltones in the accompaniment at the mention of the Virgin Mary. This simple gesture instantly marries Hokusai’s “The Great Wave of Kanogawa” with the Cathedral of Monet.
Elle a tous les dons
Terribles et doux.
J’entends ses pardons
Gronder ses courroux.
N’a rien d’entêté.
It has all qualities, Terrible and sweet. I hear its forgiveness, The rumble of its anger; This immensity Has no intentions.
Surprisingly square in design, this section carries on the opening pattern of long stretches of two-bar phrases, but avoids tedium by varying the vocal line, building each of three statements in excitement and drama. An Oriental-sounding mode based on the lowered second of the scale accompanies descriptions of the ocean, its terribleness, its moods. The voice stretches up at the expression of anger while the piano rumbles along undeterred. The immensity of the sea is accompanied by a major sixth chord with wave-like crescendos and decrescendos that are pure foreshadowings of the giant orchestral climaxes of La Mer. The pentatonic passage lifts the voice to it’s second climax, the F# half a tone higher than the climax of the previous verse.
O! si patiente,
Même quand méchante !
Un souffle ami hante
La vague, et nous chante :
« Vous sans espérance,
Mourez sans souffrance ! »
Oh! So patient, Even when wicked! A friendly breath haunts The waves, and to us sings, “You without hope, May you die without suffering!”
The texture changes as the key-signature of D Major – long suspected – arrives and as “Debussy the great composer of piano works” comes to the fore. This verse is the longest, as Debussy uses the piano as commentary more than accompaniment. The description – the “Impressionist aspect” – of the first verse started giving way to an emotional content in the second. With the third verse, the voice of Mary enters, and we are less concerned with yet more innovative ways of musically imitating waves. The mood of the poem changes suddenly, and so does the piano writing. The power of the driving waves gives way to the ‘spray catching one in the face’. As if the eye is pulled out of the depth of the ocean below to the heavens above, the hands move up the keyboard like hands knitting a fine filigreed veil to wear to church, or hands lifted to light a candle at mass. Pinkie notes high in the piano create a ghostly 4note bell-pattern that becomes a Leitmotif in the rest of the song. This melodic fragment seems to suggest the voice of Mary’s prayer which shimmers over a pentatonic melody in the voice. For the first time in the song, the composer deliberately demands a very quiet Pianissimo from the pianist. This is only possible to achieve by the most delicate and yet surefooted stroking of the keys and ironically the “Mary Prayer” theme is the anchor for the hands, physically orientating themselves. The voice, calme et doux, rises again to the high F#, but there are no heroics this time. The voice takes its time to move from phrase to phrase, giving the piano more time to comment. In a passage straight from the Reflets dans léau (Reflections in the water) from Images – a great piano cycle still to come – from the depths of the piano, like a creature rising from the underworld, comes an octave figure based on the “Mary Prayer”, echoed in the high range for a two bar phrase as we have come to expect from this theme.
But Debussy was a genius, not a hack, and by adding one extra bar, and a modulation, creates breathless anticipation in the listener. Indeed, as the poet describes, with a colon, that the voice is about to sing, Debussy changes the 2-bar structures to add an extra bar, to create the right transition time and space to prepare for the actual miracle, hearing the voice of Mary. (Literally or figuratively does not really matter, as the poet himself put it in inverted commas. He is definitely quoting!)
For the voice of Mary, Debussy enters the realm of the impossible. Pianississimo is extremely quiet. There is something extreme about P or PP shrinking to PPP as much as it is for an F to stretch to FFF. It indicates a desire from the composer for a moment of greatest intimacy, tenderness and reverence, requiring the utmost in care, precision and attentiveness in execution. Bass note Bells create a suitably religious awe and the harmony changes radically to the Flattened Second of E Flat Major. Marked Lent, every note in the voice is marked with a Tenuto, as if the composer is saying: “Take your time, this is important, don’t miss a syllable!” (Or perhaps he meant to say “Prenez votre temps, c’est important, ne manquez pas une syllabe!”) And how strange it would seem that he does not use the “Mary Prayer” as we have come to know it in the song up to this point, but a version of it with the half-note dip lowered to a whole-note dip giving it a distinctly Gergorian-Chant-like feel. The rhythm is unhurried, reverent and suitable for the woman who inspires millions to say their “Hail Mary’s” daily.
Unhurried her prayer may be, but once she’s made her miraculous appearance, she is swiftly washed aside by a headlong chase back to the ship on the stormy seas: Revenez au 1er Mouvement on a modal rocking horse washes us back to the the open ocean:
Et puis sous les cieux
Qui s’y rient plus clairs,
Elle a des airs bleus.
Roses, gris et verts…
Plus belle que tous,
Meilleure que nous !
And then under the skies that mock that they are brighter, it shows its colors blue Pink, grey, and green… More beautiful than anything, Better than we!
Debussy dispenses with the two-bar statement of the Arpeggio passage on the D Major chord which formed the introduction to Verse 1. The foreshortening is a compositional technique used by many great masters (Chopin in particular come to mind). It avoids a pedantic repetition of material simply for the sake of symmetry and propels the work forward even while repeating material already familiar to the listener. We think we are in for a repeat of Verse 1. As we sit back to enjoy the speedboat-ride to the end, the master does a hairpin bend: Trés Expressif and Pianissimo, the voice rises to G, the highest note of the song. Unlike what is heard in most performances, this high note is not meant to be a climax at all, it is a breathtaking moment of veneration of the glory of the sea, marveling at the colours. The singer is given the ultimate challenge of a sudden soft high note, and the pianist is given galumphing bass octaves and Four-Octave Arpeggios to bring right down in volume to a shimmering display of Nature’s palette.
The four bar coda En retenant jusqu’ a la fin (Holding back to the end) – see musical example above – features the “Mary Prayer” theme, delicately spread out between the two hands in a bell-like playing style at which Debussy was a master. As always, he is rarely content to repeat himself, and the third bar varies the harmony slightly, as if the lowering from black notes to white notes in the fourth beat pulls back the energy to lazy crotchets that step towards a gentle Tierce de Picardi – docking safely in the harbour of the Tonic Major, all fears anxieties and great revelations dissolving. One final languorous stretch to a high G, reaches heavenward in an echo of religious ecstasy, before dissipating in the singer’s low register. I have heard a variant in the line “Plus belle que tous” where the singer sings a High A on “que” instead of E Flat, but I have not seen a printed version. The final phrase is so beautifully designed as it is, with the voice hugging the augmented 2nd interval, it hardly seems to require any alteration.
Dedication to Chausson: “La mer est plus belle”, L. 81 no. 1 (1891)
The song is dedicated to Amédée-Ernest Chausson (1855 – 1899), a promising young composer who died in a freak accident at age 44. He appears to have cycled straight into a brick wall. Given his recent depression, there has been the suggestion of suicide. A man of means, Chausson was part of the artistic Parisian inner circle, who entertained and befriended the great young minds of Paris. He and Debussy shared musical, artistic and literary interests, and there are similar themes and explorations in their music of the early 1890’s. By the time of his death, Chausson and Debussy were no longer on speaking terms: Chausson disapproved of Debussy’s infidelity with the singer Emma Bardac which had become public knowledge and would lead to the end of his marriage to his first wife.
La mer est plus belle (Claude Debussy / Paul Verlaine): Sung by Gérard Souzay (Baritone) with Dalton Baldwin accompanying.
La mer est plus belle (Claude Debussy / Paul Verlaine): Sung by Eva-Karin Remback, soprano, Georg Öqvist accompanying.
La mer est plus belle (Claude Debussy / Paul Verlaine): Kurt Ollmann, baritone and Mary Dibbern, pianist.
La mer est plus belle (Achille-Claude Debussy 1862-1918) – FRENCH LYRICS by Paul Verlaine (1844-1896) , no title, from Sagesse, in Sagesse III, no. 15, published 1880
La mer est plus belle Que les cathédrales, Nourrice fidèle, Berceuse de râles, La mer qui prie La Vierge Marie ! Elle a tous les dons Terribles et doux. J'entends ses pardons Gronder ses courroux. Cette immensité N'a rien d'entêté. O! si patiente, Même quand méchante ! Un souffle ami hante La vague, et nous chante : « Vous sans espérance, Mourez sans souffrance ! » Et puis sous les cieux Qui s'y rient plus clairs, Elle a des airs bleus. Roses, gris et verts... Plus belle que tous, Meilleure que nous !
La mer est plus belle (Achille-Claude Debussy 1862-1918) – ENGLISH LYRICS by Paul Verlaine (1844-1896) , no title, from Sagesse, in Sagesse III, no. 15, published 1880
The sea is more beautiful Than any cathedral; A nurse faithful, A cradle-song of groans; The sea over which prays The Virgin Mary! It has all qualities, Terrible and sweet. I hear its forgiveness, The rumble of its anger; This immensity Has no intentions. Oh! So patient, Even when wicked! A friendly breath haunts The waves, and to us sings, "You without hope, May you die without suffering!" And then under the skies That mock that they are brighter, It shows its colors blue Pink, grey, and green... More beautiful than anything, Better than we! Other settings of this poem include:
Jacques Beers (1902-1947) , “La mer est plus belle”, published 1943 [voice and piano], from Six chants de Paul Verlaine, no. 2, Amsterdam
Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979) , “La mer est plus belle”, published 1910 [voice and piano], Paris, Hamelle
André Dulaurens (1877-1932) , “La mer est plus belle” [voice and piano]
Louis Durey (1888-1979) , “La mer est plus belle”, op. 2 (Trois poèmes) no. 3 (1914). [voice and piano]
François-Joseph Sterck , “La mer est plus belle”, . [voice and piano]
Théodore Terestchenko (1888-?) , “Les vagues”, published 1913 [voice and piano], from Trois mélodies, no. 2, Paris, Hamelle