Claude Debussy was first introduced to the singer Emma Bardac in early 1904, by her son Raoul, who was one of his students. Though both were married, the pair started an affair and after a secret vacation with Bardac on the island of Jersey, Debussy wrote to his wife Rosalie announcing the end of their marriage. Theirs was a passion so fierce that Emma was forced to divorce her husband and the scandal led the lovers to flee to Eastbourne on the south coast of England.
Debussy started work on this aquatic symphonic suite during the summer of 1903 in landlocked Burgundy and completed it while staying with Emma in July and August 1905 at the Grand Hotel in Eastbourne. "I love the sea and I have listened to it passionately," Debussy wrote.
The work is a series of three symphonic sketches for a large orchestra. Debussy gave pictorial names to each movement, which he said should not be taken literally. They were "From dawn to noon on the sea," "Play of the Waves" and "Dialogue of the wind and the sea."
The premiere was given by the Lamoureux Orchestra under the direction of conductor Camille Chevillard on October 15, 1905 in Paris. The piece was initially not well received - partly because of inadequate rehearsal and partly because of Parisian outrage over Debussy having left his first wife for Emma Bardac. One clever wag dismissed it as "agitated water in a saucer."
"La Mer" avoids the musical clichés of other sea-themed works in favor of Debussy's own, highly individual vocabulary. The lack of obvious devices associated with the sea, wind, and storm prompted one critic to say: "I see no sea, I hear no sea, I feel no sea."
"La Mer" soon became one of Debussy's most admired and frequently performed orchestral works, and is regarded by many today as a masterpiece of Impressionism. The first recording was made by Italian Piero Coppola in 1928.
So what happened to Debussy and his mistress? The composer and Emma were able to return to Paris eventually, where they married and raised their daughter Claude-Emma, to whom Debussy's Children's Corner Suite is dedicated.