Director’s News

“Doc Talk”/Class Lesson 5/14/2020



Monday’s Lesson:  Great Expectations; Big Footsteps; and “Why I LOVE Brahms”

Tuesday’s Lesson: “Perfection Personified;” “Boy Wonder;” “Music’s Top Genius”: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his “Symphony No. 40 in g minor”

Wednesday’s Lesson:  A quick review and catch-up day!  Please watch some of the Doc talks you may have missed!


Today’s Lesson:  Claude Debussy’s “La Mer” (“The Sea”)—3 symphonic sketches


Up to this point in our “Doc Talks,” we have focused on “mainstream classical composers;” that is, those composers whose works are most often played on symphonic programs because they are not only GREAT MUSIC, but also IMMEDIATELY ATTRACTIVE to the ears of most amateurs.


In our lesson today, we are still dealing with a “mainstream composer and composition,” but one that is on the periphery as it will begin to stretch your ears a bit.   We will be dealing with the music of Claude Debussy and his “La Mer” (“The Sea”).  Now I warn you, it may take a few listenings to begin to truly enjoy—but you WILL fully enjoy it if you know just a bit about what to listen for!


Some background:

From roughly 1600-1900 (300 years)–through the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic periods—music has been built on “functional harmony.”  Functional harmony is chord progressions that lead to a “home/key pitch” or “tonic.”  It’s been so instilled in our ears that most people do not even realize that they are experiencing this phenomenon.  Try singing “Happy Birthday” and leave out the last note… if you miss that gap, then you know what functional harmony is.


In the late 1800’s/early 1900’s, most composers were growing tired of the traditional ways that music was constructed—especially with regard to functional harmony.  They were searching for new sounds and new ways for music to move forward.  Enter Claude Debussy…


Claude Debussy (1862-1918) was a French pianist/composer who created a type of sound that most people call “Impressionistic;” although Debussy strongly disliked that term.  “Impressionism” was a term used in graphic art since 1874 to describe the work of Monet, Degas, Renoir whose paintings avoid sharp contours but convey an ‘impression” of the scene painted by means of blurred outlines and minute small detail.


Here’s the famous portrait of Monet titled “Sunrise.”


How did Debussy create “Impressionism” in sound?

1)   He avoided “major/minor” scales/chords, instead he built much of his music on pentatonic scales (5-note scales) and whole-tone scales (6-note scales).  The sound of these scales is quite exotic, and they do not contain half steps, so the “pull of gravity” to a central pitch is absent.  The notes sort of “wander” through the scale.

2)   He often layers his music with patterns of slower moving rhythms in the lower voices against faster moving rhythms in the upper voices—like layers of clouds or currents of water.

3)   His chords often contain more than 3 notes to avoid a distinctly major/minor sound.  These chords often move in parallel motion—up, or down by whole step which again creates a “vagueness” as to key center.

4)   His orchestration is usually very delicate and transparent—you can clearly hear the wonderful colors of each instrument.  [Debussy would be the direct descendent of Berlioz with regard to novel orchestration.]


Fun Fact:

A turning-point, “eureka” moment for Debussy occurred when he visited the World’s Fair in Paris in 1889 and heard a music ensemble from Indonesia playing small mallet instruments, different pitched gongs, and drums collectively known as a “gamelan ensemble.”  The manner in which this music was constructed—the use of pentatonic and whole-tone scales, the layering of rhythms, etc.—profoundly influenced Debussy’s music.  He found “the key” to creating a new sound in the music of a very old culture!  Ha!


Here’s a sample of what this type of music sounds like…

“La Mer” (1905) is considered by many to be Debussy’s “grand opus”—his most important work.  [Although his tone poem, “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” is his most known and beloved work.]  Debussy called it “3 symphonic sketches,” so it is a bit like a little symphony.  It is a very programmatic work—that is, it is strongly based on an extra-musical image:  the sea.  Its movements are titled as follows:


1)   From Dawn to Noon on the Sea

2)   Interplay of the Waves

3)   Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea


Another Fun Fact:

The picture that I am showing you is of a famous painting by a Japanese painter called “The Great Wave;” this is a picture that Debussy loved and was the source of much inspiration for this work.


In the interest of time, we are going to examine just the first movement of this work.



Musical cue #1:  :20-1:38 in the attached link

It is the time just before sun rises—the sea is calm…

Note the use of the “B natural” pedal in the timpani and string basses and the ostinato set up by the harps.

Note the pentatonic scale rising in the mid-level strings (violas)

Note the sixteenth-note/syncopated motif known as the “motif of the awakening wave”

Note the long, legato line in the trumpet and English horn known as the “Call of the Tide” theme

Note how a 4-note descending motif descends in the strings from the violins to the basses…as if looking into the depths of the sea.


Music cue #2:  1:38-1:58 in the attached link

Sky is lightening as sunrise is nearing.

Note the ostinato in the harp between the notes B-A which create a rocking motion

Note the use of the pentatonic scale that we heard in the first excerpt now growing faster and more agitated—like waves building.

Note the sixteenth-note/syncopated motif against this rising scale


Music cue #3:  1:55-2:35 in the attached link


Note the faster ostinato (repeated rhythmic/melodic figures) in the strings.

Note the new theme in the flutes and clarinets known as the “Theme of the sunlit sea.”  It is a quick flourish through a pentatonic scale.

Note the dark theme in the horns that resembles the “Call of the Tide” theme heard before.


Music cue #4:  5:06-6:25 in the attached link

In the midmorning, dolphins dance upon the sea

I call this section “the dance of the dolphins” because it sounds like dolphins playing in the sea—splashing each other and frolicking in and out of the water.

Note the syncopated, jazzy rhythm of this playful theme.

Note the use of ostinato


Music cue #5:  7:55-9:00 in the attached link

Arrival of Noon/Mid-day

Note the beautiful chorale sounded in the horns.  For the first time, Debussy actually uses MAJOR CHORDS!  The music suddenly sounds so majestic/familiar.  Debussy was inspired by the quote:  “The sea is more beautiful than a cathedral.”  Perhaps he is invoking older/traditional sounds due to his reference to a cathedral.

Note the recap of the quick “Theme of the Sunlit Sea” in the upper woodwinds and the “Sixteenth-note/Syncopated Awakening Wave Motif” in the brasses.

The work ends with 3 strong quarter notes, each sounding a perfect fifth (Eb-Bb, Db-Ab, Bb-F) which gives the music an “Eastern, oriental sound” before finally settling on a Db major chord.


Despite the many different types of sounds that you are hearing, we still have such compositional devices as motifs, themes, sequences, call & response, tonal centers, form (A-B-A), consonance & dissonance.  Sometimes this sort of music seems distant because you cannot readily sing it (that’s another advantage of a melody built over functional harmony).  But please give it time—these motifs and themes will eventually get into your head and stay there!



1) Listen to the entire first movement of “La Mer” and imagine yourself sitting on the beach watching the sun rise and staying on the beach until noon.  And please listen to it several times—I promise you that the motifs/themes will begin to sound familiar and stick in your head.  The more you listen, the more you’ll hear—and there is so much color and beauty to hear!


2) Listen to “La Mer” and watch the score!


3) I just love this analysis by Nicholas Slonimsky!  It is so easy to follow!


Please enjoy this wonderful music!


Dr. Jerry Markoch, Director of Bands

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