Debussy was a radical. A radical Frenchman who wrote such Top-40 hits as Claire de Lune and Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, or Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, a piece that caused a riot at it's premier. Debussy was good at causing people to get upset, as evidenced by the hostility caused at the 1905 premier of La Mer, or The Sea, though if you try to throw a chair at the Philharmonic performance, you'll have to contend with Rusty the Usher and he's mighty mean due to those bunions!

La Mer consists of three symphonic sketches, offering evocations of the sea at various times of the day, creating images of the waves and the dialogue of the wind and sea (Sea to Beach: Stay away from the wind today. He never shoulda had that extra helping of beans). Debussy wrote this grand piece in the summer of 1904 after leaving his wife for his mistress and fleeing to Eastbourne in Sussex for a few weeks of frolicking. Inspired by the sounds around him, he attempted to capture the beauty of the sea as dawn bloomed into day (at the first rehearsal, Erik Satie commented that he "particularly liked the bit around half-past ten"). The music is not exactly programmatic but it does clearly convey images of the see through the flittering, fragmentary style that can only be Debussy. Extending the contemporary limits of harmony and form, and with a remarkably delicate command of nuance, this piece contains some of Debussy's finest orchestrations. Not everyone was able to enjoy this piece at its first performance. An early critic commented, "As long as actual sleep can be avoided, the hearer can derive great pleasure from the strange sounds that enter his ears if he will only put away all ideas of definite construction or logical development." To modern ears, the music is no longer "strange" but the gentle flow of the sea is captured and has been known to have hypnotic effects on the listener (when you awake, you will have an intense craving for Ring-Dings).

The second piece to be played is La Valse by another famous Frenchman, Maurice Ravel, who is rumored to have eaten duck liver on more than one occasion. Although written in 1920, this piece was not premiered until 1951 when the New York City Ballet took on this daring piece, a piece which the composer likened to "dancing on the edge of a volcano." Based loosely on Edgar Allen Poe's "Masque of the Red Death", the music portrays couples waltzing in a cavernous ballroom where a woman in white is at once horrified and fascinated by the uninvited figure of death who ultimately claims her life (um… candy-gram…). Restless throughout, the music builds into a frenetic danse macabre as the foreboding musical themes shatter and the rhythms dissolve into a persistent, feverish, chaotic beat that climaxes with the death of the woman in white. Whew!

Closing out the evening will be a little number by Sergei Rachmaninoff, his Third Piano Concerto, to be exact. Many view this concerto as the epitome of piano concertos (many people also consider llamas to be nothing more than small men named Jerome in furry costumes but that is neither her nor there). Such proponents are dangerous ruffians who carry around rolls of scotch tape and boards embedded with rusty nails so don't dare try to contradict them! One cannot deny that Rachmaninoff's Third is very popular, and rightly so. From the haunting opening motif with its unmistakably Russian theme to the climax of the final movement, the music is almost a study in psychological introspection. So much is the power of this piece that its perfection helped drive David Helfgott mad, as powerfully portrayed in the 1996 film Shine where Rachmaninoff's Third is almost a lead character, continually pursuing Helfgott through life (and where one can see aging Lynn Redgrave naked… again).

Rocky wrote "The Third" in 1909 as a piece that would allow him to strut his stuff during his first concert tour of the United States. Due to time constraints (and an unexpected visit from his Aunt Pituitary and her annoyingly yippy dog Escrow), he was unable to practice the piece on an actual keyboard in Russia and had to make do with a silent keyboard during his voyage across the Atlantic Ocean on board a ship. When he finally was able to play upon a real piano, the result was instant critical and public success. With over a hundred recordings having been made of this piece since the 1930s, it should not be difficult to find a copy and explore this monumental piece for yourself. Or better yet, attend the Philharmonic performance this Saturday for a live performance, just be sure to bring along the Ring-Dings.

Copyright 1999 Jason Hoffman

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