Hopefully everyone knows this piece. The epitome of symbolist composition, La Mer is one of my favorite works of the early 20th century.
A Brief Overview of Debussy
Claude Debussy's influence is far-reaching whether contemporary composer's realize it or not. His music utilizes non-traditional tonalities (at the time, that meant using the whole tone and octatonic scales, among other modal devices.
Debussy received the majority of his musical training at the Paris Conservatory, where he was enjoyed the company of Paul Dukas. This education lead him to win the Prix de Rome, and further education in the French Academy in Rome. In Rome, Debussy discovered his extreme distaste for Italian opera, found a lasting influence in Wagnerian opera, and decided to pursue a career as a composer and pianist after the precedent of Franz Liszt—all things not exactly appreciated in French academia and music at the time.
Success was in and out for Debussy: he received regular work and support, but ultimately remained unsatisfied with how his music was described and received. His departure from standard European mediums of expression in favor of tonalities from the east—most notably Indonesian gamelan—would set the stage for contextual functionality in this music, requiring a vastly different approach to listening that many are still unable—or unwilling—to embrace. Famously, Debussy has been referred to as an Impressionist, though he despised that label and more readily fit in with symbolism than anything else.
After undergoing a significant emotional strain by the events of World War I, Debussy's writing slowly stalled out. He died 1918 of colon cancer a few short months after the completion of Evenings Illuminated by the Heat of Coal.
A bit about the piece
Many would consider La Mer to be the first symbolist work ever written. It is a wondrous dipiction of superb orchestration coupled with a complete departure from Germanic harmonic hierarchy. While it would be cliche to describe the piece as watching waves crest on the beach, it really is a full embrace of "moment music" in its freshest state, and requires a listening approach void of functional expectation that is typically brought to a concert hall.
La Mer was not received will upon its premiere. While many came expecting to hear "the sea," several critics panned it as more likely a drizzling day. Nearly four years later, while Debussy was prepping the piece for a tour to the United Kingdom, the same critic for the same publication praised it as a ground-breaking work of grandeur.
It is a bit of a pity how little this work is programmed today—sure, it still graces the stage far more than most contemporary works, but given its monumental impact on composers for the next century, one would think this would be a staple not unlike the Beethoven symphonies. Upon listening, one can immediately hear the groundwork for most major movie soundtracks, as well as the reshaping of orchestration approaches that had been solidified in the Germanic school of composition for decades prior.
Definitely take a listen to this piece with fresh ears. Approach as a new work with no expectations, and it might open a new space deep inside.