Camille Pissarro, The Garden of the Tuileries on a Spring Morning (1899)
During a pleasant sunny day last Saturday in the Tuileries Garden I popped into the Musée de l'Orangerie to see their excellent exhibition, 'Debussy, Music and the Arts'. The penultimate room is devoted to contemporary landscape paintings on themes that inspired Debussy: night scenes, seascapes and landscapes by Manet, Degas, Monet and others. Debussy owned a copy of Hokusai's print The Great Wave and used it as a cover image when he published La Mer, three symphonic sketches for orchestra, in 1905. Debussy's association with poets and playwrights like Mallarmé and Maeterlinck is highlighted throughout the exhibition and one display includes an edition of his own poetic compositions, Proses lyriques. The consensus seems to be that these were not very good and I think this is fairly evident from 'The Strand', which attempts to describe the sea in words: 'the waves chatter like silly little girls let out of school in their lustrous frilly green silk dresses...' (see the translation on The Lied, Art Song and Choral Text Archive). La Mer, by contrast, as I mentioned in an earlier post, is surely one of music's 'most successful evocations of the sea'.
There are various reviews, programme notes and sound recordings of La Mer online: a Radio 3 programme by Stephen Johnson, for example, in which Debussy's Impressionism is compared to Monet's waterlilies (which of course are also on show at the Musée de l'Orangerie). But I want here to quote from a short article by Nicholson Baker in Granta in which he describes visiting the hotel in Eastbourne where Debussy completed the composition. 'There was dried rain-dust on the outside of the glass, but I looked out over the water and saw, near to shore, an unexpected play of green and gold and turquoise waves – not waves, really, because they were so small, but little manifestations of fluid under-energy. The clouds had the look that a glass of rinse water gets when you’re doing a watercolour – slowly diluting black roilings, which move under the white water that you made earlier when you rinsed the white paint from the brush. But the sea didn’t choose to reflect the clouds that day; it had its own private mallard-neck pallet, the fine gradations of which varied with the slopes of the wind-textured swells. Through the dirty window, I thought I saw, for a moment, what Debussy had seen.'