Timbre In The First Movement Of La Mer

‘Timbre is the quality of a musical note or sound or tone that distinguishes different types of sound production, such as voices or musical instruments’. Sometimes timbre is also known as tone quality or tone colour.
La Mer is an orchestral composition by Claude Debussy. The composition began its life in 1903 in France and was finished in Eastbourne in 1905. Its first performance had mixed reviews possibly due to the strained relationship he had with his wife and also some critics said it did not create any sensations of the sea. The orchestra that premiered the piece was also poorly rehearsed.

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In this essay I am going to identify the basic categories of timbre employed by Debussy in the first movement, ‘De l’aube à midi sur la mer’ from La Mer. I am going to show how timbre is employed structurally through the course of the work, with clear identification of structural points and relationships between the sections. I will also show how timbre in this first movement is fundamental compared to other parameters.
As we know Debussy was heavily related to impressionism which was dominated by atmosphere and the use of suggestion. Debussy uses timbre to suggest colour, mood and atmosphere, as would Monet or Renoir in their own paintings. In particular, one of Debussy’s greatest influences when composing La Mer was the Japanese artist Hokusai. In his painting ‘The Great Wave of Kanogawa’ he shows a vivid but suggestive, powerful wave breaking with foam and spray crashing, creating a scene of terror. This painting is very similar to Debussy’s first movement, which is vague but also has moments of terror in it. This can be seen at bar 84 here the new section starts.
Today, La Mer is highly regarded because of its powerful creation of colours and Debussy’s replication of the sea. Debussy’s unique employment of these creations have more than certainly gone on to influence many later scores, such as you might find within the film industry because of its suggestive atmosphere. For example, John Williams’ Jaws. “Generally speaking, La Mer has been influential on many contemporary soundtrack composers because of its highly suggestive and moody atmosphere.” The structure of this piece was quite different from other pieces composed around the same time. Debussy fits his structure around the moods, journey and life of the sea without any human element, just purely about nature.
We can see through many books and online articles how important timbre was to Debussy. ‘Caroline Potter in “Debussy and Nature” describes that Debussy’s representation of the sea “avoids monotony by using a multitude of water figurations that could be classified as musical onomatopoeia: they evoke the sensation of swaying, movement of waves and suggest the pitter-patter of falling droplets of spray.”‘ We know that musical onomatopoeia is closely associated with specific musical instruments, so Debussy probably chose the instruments with a timbre he felt related to the sea, such as the flute solo at the beginning of the movement at bar 44 which might give the impression of a bird soaring above the sea: “It has a lonely character, possibly a sea bird.” Debussy also went a stage further when creating sounds related to the sea. Simon Trezise states in the Cambridge Companion to Debussy that “for much of La Mer, Debussy spurns the more obvious devices associated with the sea, wind, and concomitant storm in favor of his own, highly individual vocabulary”
Debussy gives a pictoral title for his fist movement ‘from Dawn to Noon on the Sea’. Whether this was intentional to give a literal name for his first movement is unknown but the work certainly does create pictures of the ocean. Through the first movement we can hear the gentle swells and glistening surfaces of the sea to the breaking of the waves on the shoreline. Perhaps through the quieter parts of the movement it suggests that under the sea it is calm and unchanging yet on the surface is an ever-changing picture. La Mer is split into three different movements the first being “From Dawn to Noon on the Sea with ‘quick timbral changes to suggest the sea’s different, ever changing natures.’ “From Dawn to Noon on the Sea” is built upon short episodes, which use different instruments to suggest the various timbres of the sea. Debussy develops this to a “wonderful suggestion of the swelling of waves, as a theme for divided cellos swells and subsides” this is similarly copied by the “timpani and horns.” These episodes can also be heard in the final stages of the final movement.
In the first movement of La Mer, Debussy remarkable use of timbre can be seen. As Paul Henry Lang notes, ‘it’s “a vibrating, oscillating, glimmering sound complex, caressing the senses” in which Debussy rarely uses the full mass of the orchestra, but approaches it with delicacy and resourcefulness to “shimmer in a thousand colours.” As a result, Debussy splits his strings up into separate lines, combines the sounds of contrasting instruments, uses provocative harmonies with parallel chordal movement and unresolved progressions, and plays about with thematic fragments that never join together into full-blown melodies, all to achieve unprecedented, yet wholly natural, sounds and timbres.’ Pierre Boulez calls the result “an infinitely flexible conception of acoustical instrumental relationships” that avoided symmetry, “a development conceived in feelings and irreducible to a formal classical plan.”
As noted in the introduction, La Mer was unlike any other piece composed at the time. He uses timbre as a relative to the structure of La Mer. The opening marked at pp starts with strings and harps. This timbre creates a still and calm opening, “possibly representing the first light at dawn.” Instruments are then gradually added, such as the rolling of timpani, with the deep, dark sound of the double bass, perhaps giving a sense of what’s to come as well as contrasting with the harps and strings. Also at the opening our sense of pulse is ambiguous. The harps reflect this by playing in octaves in their lower register, together with the cellos also in octaves; producing a dark and resonant sound, which blends with the background. The beginning of this movement provides a pure harmonized and mystical effect to imitate the calm of the sea at dawn. As the sun slowly rises, at bars 1-5 the violas, doubled at the octave, add their ascending pentatonic melody, which gives sense of a fresh and clean start to the day.
At bar 31 the first principal section follows. This part of the movement grows and develops its own material, being mostly independent. However, we can see it is still based upon the opening, with a few different elements omitted. For instance at bar 33, we can see that the flute’s pentatonic motif is doubled by the clarinets at the octave below. The use of the pentatonic melody might suggest an oriental flavour. The use of the flutes that dominate the hollow consecutive fifth have a similar timbre to that of the Chinese flute. As Debussy was closely related to the art movement of the time, this perhaps can be related to Debussy’s preference to The Great Wave off Kanagawa. In the background to this, the second violins and violas wave- like ostinato figure suggests the shimmering, repetitive surface of the sea, while the cellos wider range and more active motion might begin to imply more movement of the sea below the surface. In this section, the harps also play rolling chords that add resonance and suggest the relentless rays of the sun.
The second principal section of the movement starts at bar 84. So far, the cellos have played only an accompanying role by suggesting the depths of the ocean. We can now see a new motif that Debussy uses at bar 86. Debussy employs the four part divided cellos to dominate the sonority. This is something that is a very unusual arrangement in Debussy’s orchestration. At the structural changing point, Debussy again uses the cellos to create a full, strongly articulated and intense sonority, combined with the swelling of the rolling timpani and the horns, to proclaim and bring us into a new section. This drastic change could suggest rumbling thunder or a slow but huge surge of the sea during a storm, gathering its power to strike out on a large rock. This is then followed by a short interlude from bars 122-133. This ten bar section consists of two strong points of four bars with only minor variation in the last four bars. A two bar extension is then added. At this point in the piece we can hear that the momentum is slack and the sea has become uneventful. This can be seen in the timbre employed in this particular section. If we look at the string section they are directed to play Sur la Touch. This creates a soft, colourless tone quality, which reflects the uneventful sea below.
We then move into the final section (coda) of the piece. We can see that the harps light ringing timbre, as they play arpeggios in a high register, is used to employ an effect of light. This is contrasting to the low full and dark sound in the beginning. This effect produces a bright tone colour and adds a clear articulation to the ensemble. This suggests the midday image of the ocean filled with the strength of the sun at its highest point. The Trombones also make their first entry in La Mer, creating a tremendous sense of the alarming power of the sea. As the music advances towards a splendid tutti ending, the chorale symbolizes the midday sun bursting through the sea mist after the uneventful stillness of the interlude. The shining atmosphere of the midday suggested in the title is vividly presented.
Debussy’s use of timbre is fundamental throughout La Mer and perhaps is more crucial than other parameters that other composers might usually rely on, such as tonality and structure. However for Debussy, the use of timbre is very important when reproducing and replicating the sounds of the great ocean. The timbres he has used throughout reflect the title of the first movement and do suggest characteristic features one might associate with the sea.
One of Debussy’s greatest attributes is the way he creates musical colour. Susan Key, a writer for the LA philharmonic program books describes how “Debussy achieves his sonorities by augmenting the standard orchestra with some glitter: two harps and a large percussion section. But other musical elements also become agents of colour. Harmonic changes serve as colour washes; chords dissolve rather than resolve. Short melodic motives rather than fully developed themes sparkle in brief solos, substituting timbre and movement for narrative coherence.”
Debussy’s sophisticated use of timbre is shown in his orchestral scoring of the first movement of La Mer. The use of timbre and effect it has in Debussy’s orchestration not only becomes an important part of his formal structure, but they also provide energetic pictorial images and emotional atmospheres demonstrating his close relationship of music with visual impressionism. In La Mer, a vivid landscape is suggested from the various wave figurations, shimmering light and onomatopoeic sound effects. The vagueness, ambiguity and effects of light he uses reflects the visual arts, and are vividly implied from his usage of instrumental echoing effects, tremolo strings, harp, and the special timbre of percussion instruments. Although Debussy’s usage of instruments and most of his instrumentations are not as aggressive as his fellow composers such as Mahler, Strauss and Stravinsky, his delicate way of exploiting timbre is one of his most important contributions.
I have identified how Debussy has used timbre to suggest colour, atmosphere and emotion in the first movement of La Mer. I have also shown how timbre is employed structurally through the course of the work and how for Debussy, timbre is just as, if not more important than any other parameters in La Mer.

Le Silence De La Mer Analysis

Analyse the depiction of Franco-German collaboration in the short story ‘Le Silence de la mer’. How effective is it in contesting the imagery and ideals of collaboration?
The imagery and ideals (and indeed questions on their authenticity) regarding Franco-German collaboration are perceived and presented through means of a German soldier’s transition from ignorance to knowledge. At the beginning of the story Werner von Ebrennac is idealistic, almost delusional, in his perspective on the German occupation. Towards the final ‘episodes’ of the story, however, an austere sense of darkness and truth pervades as he undergoes a transformation in his outlook which directly results from the revelations he faces in Paris. Vercors is highly effective in illustrating the fundamental flaws in idealising such a notion because by presenting the reader with an optimistic character – and one whose naivety is flagrantly exaggerated to the point of being implausible – he succeeds in juxtaposing the ideal and the actuality of Franco-German collaboration, thus inviting readers to witness their stark contrast.

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This question cannot be answered without incorporating an analysis of one of the short story’s most significant images. Ubiquitous within it is the concept of a ‘marriage’ between France and Germany. As von Ebrennac himself says of Briand, ‘“Il va nous unir, comme mari et femme”’. France, as is usual in her traditional guise of ‘Marianne’, is the feminised party; the ‘femme’ of the metaphor, whilst Germany is portrayed as the husband; the ‘mari’. Written at a time when women could not, particularly in the context of Nazi and Vichy ideals, expect the same rights as their husband, this pervasive symbol can be interpreted as one which casts France in a role of subjugated female to Germany’s dominant male rather than a collaborator on an equal footing with her invader. This device is deployed in more detail on pages 29 and 30, when von Ebrennac tacitly compares France and Germany’s relationship – and on a lesser scale the unfeasible liaison between himself and the narrator’s niece – to the fairytale ‘The Beauty and the Beast’.
On a superficial level Vercors is suggesting that the so-called ‘collaboration’ between the two countries exists solely in the realm of myth and legend; that the ‘polite invasion’ of the early years of German occupation was a fantastic smokescreen designed to disguise its true tyrannical nature. On a deeper level it becomes clear that von Ebrennac’s idealisations conceal an underlying recognition of Nazi values in spite of his seemingly personable demeanour. With the fairytale’s protagonists evidently serving as symbols of the two countries, the soldier inverts the emotional dynamics of the story by focusing on the torment of the Beast (Germany) rather than the capture of Beauty (France), creating an unusually positive portrayal of the former. Much like Nazi propaganda, the true train of events is glossed over and undermined. Furthermore, there lies a sinister undercurrent beneath the ‘bonheur sublime’ that this union is supposed to give rise to, namely ‘“leurs enfants, qui additionnent et mêlent les dons de leurs parents, sont les plus beaux que la terre ait portes.”’ In this sentence von Ebrennac, whether he realises it or not, is indirectly referring to the Nazi aspiration to create a ‘Herrenvolk’, or ‘master race’, of Aryan people to improve their breeding stock. Finally, the very act of translating a traditional French story into German (La Belle et la bête becomes Das Tier und die Schöne) represents far more than a linguistic practicality; it is symbolic of translating French culture, society and politics into German as well. From this we can glean that Franco-German ‘collaboration’ isn’t the ideal which the Nazi propaganda machine, and of course the German soldier in this story, would have us believe. It is by no means a symbiotic relationship, but an invasion in which only one country will prevail; that of the invader.
Although the complicity of France in advocating Nazi ideology during the war years has been brought into question in decades since, Vercors’ French characters are unquestionably resisters. ‘Le Silence de la mer’ is most easily interpreted as an allegory of passive resistance; the narrator and his niece’s refusal to speak to the soldier who lives in their home uninvited is an act of great self-sacrifice and patriotism; an imprisonment of the mind which serves to protect the values of the culture and country they hold so dearly. In the niece’s case, her silence and failure to make eye-contact with von Ebrennac is also a complex denial of her blossoming feelings for him. She forfeits what might, in other historic circumstances, have been a happy and suitable union in order to serve the best interests of her country.
An analysis of the narrator’s library reveals how incompatible a ‘marriage’ France and Nazi Germany would be. For gracing its shelves (as observed on page 28) is a long list of classic authors, mainly French, with two things in common: they all uphold the Republican emphasis on intellectualism and individualism, and most would have been banned under the occupation. Although the two characters never verbalise their beliefs, the titles contained in this library are the literary manifestation of their convictions; the value they place on civil liberties and democracy. The inclusion of great writers of other nationalities, for example Shakespeare, is no doubt intended to symbolise resistance on a wider, European level. In short, the protagonists’ interests lie in resistance, not collaboration.
The closing line of ‘Le Silence de la mer’ – ‘Dehors luisait au travers de la brume un pâle soleil. Il me sembla qu’il faisait très froid’ – epitomises, through means of pathetic fallacy, the deception of the early years of the German occupation. The relationship between France and Germany is not ‘un amour partagé’, but, as the references to Shakespearean plays Macbeth and Othello imply, a tragedy, as one seeks to erase the spirit of the other. Von Ebrennac’s compatriot’s words expose the true nature of Franco-German collaboration: ‘“Nous ne sommes pas des fous ni des niais: nous avons l’occasion de détruire la France, elle le sera. Pas seulement sa puissance: son âme aussi. Son âme surtout. Son âme est le plus grand danger.”’ Not a collaboration at all, but a conquest.