Program notes: Debussy’s La Mer

Saturday, August 19, 2023 , 6:30 PM

Michael Tilson Thomas: Agnegram

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Concerto in B-flat Major for Bassoon, K. 191 [186e]

Claude Debussy: La Mer


Michael Tilson Thomas (b. 1944)

Composed: 1998, rev. 2016
Length: c. 7 minutes
Instrumentation: 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes and English horn, 2 clarinets and bass clarinet, 2 bassoons and contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, 4 percussion (triangle, cymbals, suspended cymbal, high hat, anvil, brake drum, cowbell, whip, woodblocks, ratchet, tambourine, snare drum, side drum, lion’s roar, bass drum, crotales, chimes, glockenspiel, xylophone, vibraphone, flexatone, cencerros), harp, piano, and strings

Michael Tilson Thomas is best known as a conductor, the longtime music director of the San Francisco Symphony (1995-2020), and the founder and artistic director of the New World Symphony (1987-2022). He has also found time to compose, a longtime passion of his. Years before he went public with his compositional work, mentor Leonard Bernstein remarked to Thomas, “You have to develop the compulsion to share your music and then you’ll do something about it. When you’re ready, you’ll be ready.” By the late 1980s, he was ready and has put out a steady stream of works ever since.

Agnegram was written for Agnes Albert, a longtime San Francisco Symphony Board member, in honor of her 90th birthday in 1998. Ms. Albert was a generous patron and an accomplished pianist who soloed with the orchestra in her earlier years. Thomas explained later, “I wanted a piece that would represent her the way she was—witty, charming, vivacious and full of humor.” He constructed the core material and themes of the piece from a musical translation of Ms. Albert’s name: AGNES = A-G-E-E♭, ALBERT = A-A-B♭-E-D-B. Here, N is left out, S and B are interpreted via their German note names, and L, R, and T are given the solfege interpretations (la, re, and ti respectively). You can hear the literal interpretation of the notes in the very opening line of the piano, supported by the winds. The piece is an exuberant and vivid fanfare, with little hints of some of Ms. Albert’s favorites (Irish lullabies, Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Verdi, and Jerry Lee Lewis).

Concerto in B-flat Major for Bassoon, K. 191

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

Composed: 1774
Length: c. 20 minutes
Instrumentation: Solo bassoon, 2 oboes, 2 horns, and strings

When Mozart completed his Bassoon Concerto in Salzburg in June 1774, he was still just a teenager. In fact, K. 191 is among Mozart’s first concertos for any instrument. While Mozart probably completed five concertos for the bassoon during his early career, K. 191 is the only one to survive. The origins of the Bassoon Concerto remain a mystery, but it is believed to have been written for a player in Salzburg, and given the nature of the solo part, the intended recipient must have been highly accomplished. Mozart masterfully exploits the idiosyncrasies of the instrument in this concerto. Liberal use of staccato articulation, quick passagework, and large melodic leaps speak to the good-natured humor characteristic of the instrument, but Mozart was also keenly aware of the bassoon’s particular brand of lyricism; it is this sensitivity that has secured the concerto’s place in the repertoire. As difficult as it is to play on today’s instruments, the solo part was even more challenging in Mozart’s time, when the more limited Classical bassoon necessitated tricky cross-fingerings.

What to listen for

  • First movement: Pay special attention to the virtuoso elements in the bassoon, including lengthy 16th-note runs and huge melodic jumps exceeding two and one-half octaves in places.
  • Second movement: The melody/accompaniment roles of the strings in the opening are enriched as the bassoon enters with its repeat of the serene cantabile (that is, in a smooth, singing style) tune.
  • Third movement: Internet reactions to this movement marvel at the bassoon’s “sick shredding” here. It’s an apt description.

La Mer

Claude Debussy (1862-1918)

Composed: 1903-1905
Length: c. 25 minutes
Instrumentation: 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes and English horn, 2 clarinets, 3 bassoons and contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets and 2 cornets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, 3 percussion (triangle, cymbals, glockenspiel, tam-tam, bass drum), 2 harps, and strings

Debussy had a lifelong love affair with the sea. He continually turned to it for peace and perspective, solace and inspiration. His idealized vision of the sea evoked an awe and respect for what he considered the epitome of nature unspoiled by mankind. In the summer of 1906, shortly after completing La Mer, Debussy wrote from the Normandy seafront:

Here I am again with my old friend the sea, always innumerable and beautiful. It is truly the only thing in nature that puts you in your place; one does not sufficiently respect the sea. To submerge in it human bodies deformed by daily life should not be allowed: these arms and legs that move in ridiculous rhythms—it is enough to make the fish weep.

Debussy’s depictions of water and the sea, most notably in La Mer but also in other works such as his Sirènes from Nuages, his Jeux d’eau, and his opera Pelléas et Mélisande, capture not just the physical aspects of the waters but the sensations that he ascribes to them, which he felt were inherently musical. Debussy once wrote, “Music expresses the motion of the waters, the play of curves described by changing breezes.” If the impressionist painters were drawn to the sea for its reflective qualities and the games that it played with light and color, Debussy saw in it a reflection of the whole range of human emotion. Debussy’s imaginative representation of the sea was lost on initial audiences of La Mer, who perhaps expected a more programmatic portrayal of the sea. Although the critical and popular failure of the 1905 premiere was a bitter disappointment for Debussy, by 1908 the reaction to the piece had turned 180 degrees. La Mer would go on to be one of the most frequently performed works of the 20th century.

What to listen for

  • In the first movement, repetitive background patterns evoke the rhythms of the sea as the themes in the foreground reflect its many states: tranquil, kinetic, forceful, angry, and majestic.
  • Listen carefully for the entrance of the beguiling theme in the English horn about two minutes into the middle movement, immediately picked up by the French horn.
  • The second theme in the last movement comes in the winds—an achingly beautiful melody that slowly rises before quickly falling, working with the rest of the orchestra to depict a collaborative dance of wind and waves.

Program notes by Jon Kochavi