Recreating Claude Debussy's “La Mer” Using Music Software

A monumental artist of the the early 20th Century, Claude Debussy is universally regarded as the first Impressionist composer. His groundbreaking work ultimately guided much of the musical evangelism of the transfigurative French Impressionism movement. His music was a direct reaction against the previous German musical traditions of form and harmony.

Musically voicing his dissent of so much of the structural zeitgeist advocated for by late Classical-era theorists—such as Richard Wagner and his rule-driven chromaticism—Debussy developed a distinct musical voice and language centered around spatial ambience, vivid atmospheric illustration, and harmonic structural abstraction.

Claude Debussy (1862–1918)

Today at Reverb, we are celebrating the life and work of this significant musical luminary on his 156th birthday. Born on August 22, 1862, on the outskirts of Paris, Achille-Claude Debussy first touched a piano at the age of seven, while holding up temporary residence at his aunt's home in Cannes. After returning to Paris and displaying immense talent, Claude Debussy was admitted to the prestigious Conservatoire de Paris, where he remained for the next 11 years. A troubled student, but an incredibly talented sight reader and performer, he ultimately became ineligible for piano studies and remained a student of theory and composition.

After a short stint as a traveling accompanist, Debussy was first introduced to the cutting edge, thought-leading music of Richard Wagner upon his return to Paris in 1887. Resolving to his convictions that there was no future in emulating the music of the German musical dignitary, he's been quoted as remarking on Wagner's music as "a beautiful sunset that was mistaken for a dawn."

His first major concert work, the symphonic poem Prélude A L'Après-Midi D'Un Faune, was premiered at the Société Nationale in December 1894. This work was the first of his three orchestral works in three parts, and is largely considered a turning point in the history of contemporary music. This Prélude was a first glimmer into what would evolve into his matured compositional style.

This work sees Debussy stretching the limits of tonality by employing extensive use of tri-tones and whole-tone scales, a foreshadowing of the many melodic and harmonic linguistics that would later come to define his musical dialect. A key work in his development, this orchestral suite features a sampling of his evocative musical metaphors, each one striving for that unique visceral connection with the abstractions of the human psyche.

Completed in 1895 and first performed in 1902, the success of Pelléas et Mélisande—Debussy's landmark opera—combined with the artistic strides of Prélude A L'Après-Midi D'Un Faune, increased his velocity into his ultimate prestigious status as the leading figure of French music. He held that status for the duration of his life, up to his death in 1918. During this same period, he composed some of his best-known works, including the orchestral pieces Ibéria and Images, as well as his Suite Bergamasque, of which his most famous piano work would emerge, "Clair De Lune."

However, around this same era, between August 1903 to March 1905, Claude Debussy wrote a complex tripartite orchestral piece of symphonic sketches. This was to be his most substantial orchestral work, and is considered to be the greatest example of an orchestral Impressionist work of any era. La Mer - Trois Esquisses Symphonique, a masterpiece of Western music development and literature is a quintessential example of Debussy's highly developed mature style of abstract Impressionism. Utilizing many unparalleled, remarkably individualistic gestures of musical onomatopoeia, La Mer explores a cornucopia of vivid orchestral color through use of a legion of aquatic motives and figurations.

La Mer - 1905 Score

Consisting of two energetic outer movements, flanking a symmetrical scherzo-like developmental center with "Jeux de vagues," La Mer's cyclical motif variations take on a very pronounced sonata form, evolving through Debussy's quasi-symphonic scheme. After only a singular whole-step modulation, from the first sketch into the second one (B Minor - C# Minor), Debussy sustains that tonal center (C# Minor) for the remainder of the work, but now contrasting that scherzo-like developmental center sketch with recapitulations of earlier motivic material from the very first sketch, signifying a loosely based sonata form for this work.

The entirety of La Mer is a quintessential example of many musical devices that Claude Debussy became famous for: cascading arpeggios sweeping throughout voicings and orchestral timbral colors, highly resonant bass motives, use of non-typical plagal cadences, constant use of theoretically non-functional harmonies with parallel melodic motions that collapse and expand voicings. Other typical techniques associated with Debussy appear in this work, such as heavy use of whole tone and modal scales, consistent appearance of tri-tone-rich harmonies that lead to other tri-tonal harmonies, effectively removing perceptions of a tonal center, contrasted by his irregular rhythmic gesticulations, which fragment any sense of steady meter and pulse.

Debussy's influential musical metaphor, La Mer, reaches far and wide, shaping the works from a diverse offering of artists, including Luciano Berio's Sinfonia and John Williams score to JAWS, to Biosphere's ambient effort Shenzhou, as well as The Seduction Of Claude Debussy by Trevor Horn's iconic group, The Art Of Noise, and most recently, John Luther Adams' 2014 Pulitzer Prize winning work, Become Ocean.

Orchestral Kontakt Libraries

For my homage to this significant artist, whose influence on my own musical language has been immeasurable, I choose to just concentrate on my favorite part of this piece, the first symphonic sketch "De l'aube à midi sur la mer" - Très Lent - Animez Peu à Peu to La Mer. Employing an international ensemble of acclaimed software brands, whose award-winning instruments and effects are some of the most prestigious industry-wide, I wanted to ensure that the languid and dream-like polyphony of this ubiquitous masterpiece was preserved.

Mixing and matching orchestral sounds originating from Germany, Holland, England, the United States, and even Budapest, this orchestral ensemble I corralled represents a culmination of many decades of respective product innovations, each one emerging as an industry-leading tool.

Best Service Chris Hein Solo Violin

From the München-based virtual instrument maestros, Best Service, I brought in their solo strings series, developed by Chris Hein. Mr. Hein, a master craftsman of virtual sonics and library creation, leverages his three decades of instrument sampling excellence, to create the Best Service Chris Hein Solo Violin, Best Service Chris Hein Solo Viola, and Best Service Chris Hein Solo Contrabass collections used in this rework.

Offering an extremely natural out-front strong tone, his Solo Violin collection is a myriad of articulation options, dynamic controls, and performance expressions, allowing the composer robust expressive command over your concertmaster. The mid- and lower-range of the Solo Viola and Solo Contrabass collections are great for textural blending and very complementary to the animated vivacity of his Solo Violin collection.

Over the years, I have begun to appreciate the actual most important voice of any orchestral string section, and that voice is the cello. Much like the versatility of the french horn, the cello's sheer breadth of utility, including note range, dynamic contour, textural color, and doubling or soloing capabilities make it a significant aspect to almost any work, but in particular, La Mer. Assigned six voices for this work, including an entire Cello Solo that appears throughout the work, it was absolutely vital that I used the most expressive cello I have.

Best Service Emotional Cello

Developed by Harmonic Subtones and recorded at Mastermix Studio in Unterföhring, the Best Service Emotional Cello collection is, by far, the most comprehensive singular cello library I have ever used. From the easily switchable articulations conveniently located on the front panel, to the standout innovative re-bowing feature, as well as the addition of contemporary avant-garde extended techniques, make this a go-to often for almost any style of music that needs live strings. I have found lots of success laying multiple instances of this panning out different articulations in the stereo field while doubling the same line.

Project SAM Orchestral Essentials

Founded in 2001 and hailing from Utrecht, Project SAM is the collaboration of composers Maarten Spruijt, Vincent Beijer, and Marco Deegenaars. It specializes in dramatic orchestral effects and dystopian sound-design tools, such as tonal clusters, unorthodox texture combinations, and effects.

The Project SAM Orchestral Essentials library offers a multitude of tools for creative orchestral effects and harmonic layering. I used the eminently resonate harp and layered lots of brass, including low brass all the way up to the fanfair-esque trumpets packed in this library.

Spitfire British Drama Toolkit

Consisting of a small string and woodwind section and created in collaboration with composer Samuel Sim, the newly launched Spitfire British Drama Toolkit is a very distinct collection of unique bowing and breath sounds within the samples to really create a live atmosphere. It features an ensemble that shifts dynamically and realistically.

Best Service The Orchestra

This library is brilliantly designed for dramatic dynamics. I used this to layer on top of other voices, including contrabass, viola, and the upper range woodwinds voices, as well as to add room texture around other supporting orchestral voices. Features such as the piccolo and flute keystrokes, heavy breath control, and highly realistic stereo field instrument imaging, this new library is a future classic.

Best Service The Orchestra, developed by the dynamic team of SonusCore/Dynamedion for Best Service, The Orchestra library was recorded at the renowned Studio 22 in Budapest.

Organized into full instrumental groups, these multiple tutti patch layer allows for popular and practical combinations of instruments that can be played live or sequenced within The Orchestra Engine, as well as the ability of shareable user presets.

However, even with all of these convenient features in one library, the most remarkable aspect of this exceptional product is the animated orchestra presets, which go even further, offering complex rhythms across sections and textural landscapes. I used this powerhouse library for most of the up-front woodwinds, a few layers of brass, and polyphonic support of other voices within the composition.

Eventide UltraReverb

An easy to use reverb plugin, the Eventide UltraReverb delivers an effective space design processor that also includes an intricate channel strip for pre- or post-processing choices. Halls, chambers, rooms, plates and ambience found in this plugin are derived from Eventide's flagship hardware processor, the H8000 UltraHarmonizer. (Right now, you can enjoy 76% off the UltraReverb in a Reverb Exclusive deal.)

Check out the audio demo of the final composition below, grab the free presets, and purchase the Logic X Sessions to dive deeper into this masterpiece.

For more information on Claude Debussy, visit his estate, here.

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