Today, by accident, I happened upon a link to a Young People’s Concert which aired on December 1, 1961. Of course, the presenter, the lecturer, was Leonard Bernstein. Leonard Bernstein was ahead of his time, although you could make the argument that promoting the study and love of music is not a modern concept. Yet the way he embraced the technology of his time, and his conviction in promoting his cause by using one of the greatest orchestras in the world, the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, is remarkable. I am a big fan of the Young People’s Concerts, but I’ll leave that for a later post.
The fact, though, that Bernstein chose “La Mer” as the jumping point for his lecture on Impressionism thrills me. What a combination of two things I love so much.
La Mer has a special place in my heart. It ties many beautiful memories of my youth together. I began to love Debussy around my Freshman year of High School. (I was not your typical high school student, that’s for sure.) I credit my piano teacher, Doña Sonia Vargas, with that. She, too, holds a very special place in my heart. But curiously it was my Junior year physics teacher, Fr. Timothy Donohue, who introduced me to La Mer. One day my friend Meg and I were hanging around the physics lab at lunch time (I told you I wasn’t your typical high school student) when the subject of “classical” music came up. We asked Fr. Tim if he liked it. He responded that he was not terribly familiar with it, but that he recalled once hearing a piece called “La Mer” which he had liked. (Yes, yes, I know La Mer is not a “classical” piece, but I am writing in laymen’s terms here.) Naturally Meg and I went on a search for the music, and I was hooked right away. I was, in fact, so enamored with the piece that I purchased a cassette – yes a cassette – of it. I listened to it night after night on my Walkman – yes a Walkman – with the lights off, completely depriving all my senses other than my sense of hearing, absorbing the music. It was transfixing to the 17 year old version of me.
I loved the music so much that I brought the cassette with me on my Senior year trip to France. I remember sitting quietly on the edge of the tub in the bathroom of my room in the Hotel Terminus in Caen the night before visiting Mont St. Michel, and listening to it while my friends chattered away in the room. I was trying to steal a moment of privacy during a very fun and decidedly “unprivate” trip so that I could prepare myself musically for what I was about to see the next day. I wasn’t wearing my headphones as the coach drove up the causeway before Mont St. Michel the next morning, but La Mer played like a soundtrack in my brain as the looming medieval structure grew larger and larger before me. If I ever return I will do everything in my power to have the music present and playing as it comes into view.
If you have never heard it before, I urge you to take nine minutes out of your day to listen to the first movement. You can do it here:
The version of La Mer I first listened to was also conducted by Herbert von Karajan. And if you love it so much you want to hear more, watch Leonard Bernstein conduct the third movement below. The quality of the recording is not great, but if you watch him conduct it, it will give you a sense of how much he loved it. And maybe you will spring a tear as I always do beginning at minute 7:30 (or especially at minute 8:10 of the first movement).
Thank you, Fr. Tim, for introducing me to La Mer at such an important time in my life. Perhaps you have met Claude Debussy already. Say hello for me. Rest in Peace.