ne of the primary characteristics of water is that it is amorphous: it takes the shape of whatever container it is put into.
Music is similar in that it can take on the characteristics of whatever artistic era in which it is created. For this reason, we are able to divide the history of music into eras that correspond to developments in the other arts. One can almost see the tall, vaulted ceilings of a medieval cathedral in the stark fourths and fifths of early Notre Dame polyphony; the bright colors and attention to human values of Renaissance painting in sprightly Renaissance madrigals; the swirling curly-cues of rococo decoration in the trills and ornaments of Baroque music; the clean lines of Doric columns and lintels in the formal perfection of Mozart and Haydn; the dark, brooding colors that characterize Romantic painting and the seriousness of Romantic literature in 19th-century orchestral music; and the total abandonment of realism in painting and sculpture that coincides with the abandonment of tonality by many 20th-century composers.
To understand what tonality is, think of music as a crossword puzzle for the ears, operating in both horizontal and vertical dimensions. The horizontal progression of one note after another is what we think of as melody; the vertical alignment of notes played simultaneously is harmony. Those vertical groups of tones are called chords, and within the system of tonality, which was the fundamental structural device of Western art music between 1650 and roughly 1900, each chord has certain tendencies to resolve to others. (For a more detailed discussion of tonality, click here) By either meeting our expectations of resolution or defying them, composers keep their music interesting. As music styles continued to evolve, composers found more and more ways of keeping us guessing by making chords more ambiguous, so that we weren't sure where they were going to go. They did this by introducing more and more "accidentals"—notes that are raised (with a sharp sign) or lowered (with a flat) and therefore no longer belonging to a specific key. The German opera composer Richard Wagner is generally credited with taking this ambiguity as far as it could go while still maintaining a sense of tonality.
Some composers—such as Arnold Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School—dealt with this situation by dumping tonality altogether, along with its familiar arsenal of chords and harmonic progressions. French composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918) turned in another direction. Reacting against the excesses of Wagner's music, Debussy kept the chords and harmonic sounds of tonality, but used them as independent sonic building-blocks of pure sound-determined not only by pitch but also by instrumental color—without attempting to have them resolve in any "proper" way. It's a little like constructing a giant mosaic out of many tiny photographs; the individual photos no longer convey their original meaning, but instead-through careful juxtapositioning—combine to form a larger image that may be totally unrelated to their individual meanings.
By using orchestral sounds as so many splashes of color, Debussy came to be associated with the school of painting known as impressionism, in which objects or ideas are suggested rather than clearly depicted, and emotional reactions are more important than the object being reacted to. The feeling of vagueness evoked by paintings by such artists as Joseph Turner, Claude Monet, Jean Renoir and Paul Cézanne seem to have a correspondence in the dreamy, fluid soundscapes created by Debussy, who once called Turner "the finest creator of mystery in art" and asserted that "Music has this over painting: it can bring together all manner of variations of color and light-a point not often observed though it is quite obvious."
Dealing in such free-flowing reveries, it should not surprise us that impressionist artists took such interest in the images of water and reflections (just think of all those water lilies immortalized by Monet). Debussy composed numerous piano miniatures with water-related titles, such as En bateau, Sirenes, Reflets dans l'eau, Voiles and La cathedrale engloutie, but he used the full resources of the post-Wagnerian orchestra for his mighty portrait of the sea itself, La Mer. Originally impressed by Turner's sea pictures, Debussy also drew inspiration from the Japanese painting by Hokusai called The Great Wave of Kanogawa, a copy of which hung in the composer's studio and which he had reproduced on the cover of the published score to La Mer. He once told a friend, "You perhaps do not know that I was destined for the beautiful career of a sailor and it was only by chance that fate led me in another direction."
The direction that chance led him in was to create the greatest work of impressionist music of all time. In three distinct sections—as is Zemlinsky's The Mermaid—La Mer is virtually a symphony in three movements: De l'aube a midi sur al mer ("From dawn to midday at Sea"), Jeu de vagues ("Play of the waves") and Dialogue du vent et de la mer ("Dialogue of the wind and the sea"). It is telling that Debussy admitted he did not compose the work in the proximity of the actual ocean, adding "But I have an endless store of memories, and to my mind, they are worth more than the reality, whose beauty often deadens thought."
Debussy's contemporary critics tried to portray him as the head of a new school of composition, but he firmly resisted the idea. Although hardly any composer after Debussy escaped his influence—he has been called the father of modern music—none really took up his specific style, and it has been suggested that impressionism in music might better be called "Debussyism." Although he is often spoken of in the same breath as Ravel, and the two composers briefly became friends, they ended up estranged colleagues at best.
Even more inimical was Camille Saint-Saëns, who championed the music of Wagner; after he had seen some of Debussy's music for two pianos, he furiously wrote to composer Gabriel Fauré, "The door of the Institut must at all costs be barred against a man capable of such atrocities." Debussy further alienated many of his friends during the years he was working on La Mer when he abandoned his wife Rosalie to have a summer tryst with Emma Bardac, prompting Rosalie to make a failed but highly publicized suicide attempt. Although Emma and Claude eventually divorced their respective spouses and married in 1908, they scandalized society when Emma gave birth to their daughter Claude-Emma just two weeks after the premiere of La Mer in 1905—the same year as the premiere of Zemlinsky's The Mermaid.
Essay by John Schauer Associate Director of Communications at Ravinia Festival Editor of Ravinia Program Magazine