Numerous representations of the sea are woven into the work of Claude Debussy (1862–1918). The French composer regularly referenced his awe of the sea and its power, and even noted that he had "intended for the noble career of a sailor" in a 1912 letter to close friend and composer André Messager. Although the sea had already played a recurring character throughout much of his piano music, the first appearance of this subject in Debussy's orchestral output was the final movement of his 1899 work Trois Nocturnes, "Sirènes," in which he gave life to the deadly mythological seductresses by adding a wordless female choir to the standard orchestral forces.
Debussy's treatment of the sea as a musical subject is paramount in what many critics and audiences alike consider to be his orchestral magnum opus, 1905's La Mer. However, despite the evocative titles of the work's three movements—"From Dawn to Noon on the Sea," "Play of the Waves," and "Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea"—La Mer is an example of the composer's wish to create atmospheric music, rather than anything conventionally representational. Debussy was highly critical of overtly programmatic music, and once remarked in a published review of Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony that music should "not attempt at direct imitation, but rather [capture] the invisible sentiments of nature." So instead of seeking to portray storms, waves, and crying birds in an obvious manner, Debussy sought to distill the essence of his many seaside memories while composing the piece in landlocked Burgundy and Paris.
Another key element in the creation of La Mer comes in the form of Hokusai's iconic "Under the Wave off Kanagawa"—also known as "the Great Wave"—its popularity emblematic of the japonisme movement that overtook France in the mid-nineteenth century. While a student in Rome from 1885–87, Debussy was often rummaging through the city's antique shops and purchasing Japanese artifacts to take back to Paris. It comes as no surprise, then, that his studio would retain many of these objects, and chief among the Japanese artwork Debussy kept on his walls was a framed print of Hokusai's "Great Wave."
Cultural circles throughout Europe greatly admired Hokusai's work—a result of the 1853 treaty that opened commercial trade between Japan and the West and therefore created a prolific market for Japanese art, particularly in France. Major artists of the Impressionist movement such as Monet owned copies of Hokusai prints, and leading art critic Philippe Burty, in his 1866 Chefs-d'oeuvre des Arts industriels, even stated that Hokusai's work maintained the elegance of Watteau, the fantasy of Goya, and the movement of Delacroix. Going one step further in his lauded comparisons, Burty wrote that Hokusai's dexterity in brush strokes was comparable only to that of Rubens.
The aesthetic parallels between Hokusai and Debussy within their respective disciplines are many, as both artists chose style over realism and placed an intense focus on brilliant color and vibrant energy. Just as Japanese art of the Edo period prized decorative motives independent of system or conventional development, so did Debussy have distaste for formal structure, motivic development, and the use of strict musical forms that composers adhered to during the Classical and Romantic periods.
For both artists, creating dynamic new colors and a sense of motion was of chief importance, and their work moves well beyond that of mere portraiture. The ferocious height and terrifying form of Hokusai's wave are amplified by his use of the then-rare "Prussian blue" and a jarring sense of perspective that keeps the eye from focusing on the print's primary subject, Mount Fuji. As such, Debussy's sea isn't composed of cymbal crashes and fluttering flutes that allude to a literal oceanic sound, but instead the composer uses a group of sixteen cellos (twice the number found in a standard orchestra) to breathe life into a heaving, slowly blossoming chorale in the first movement, and pentatonic harmonies to create a sense of the ocean's vast expanse. In fact, one of the only differences between the two artists lies in their portrayal of the sea's power: Hokusai highlights the cultural fear of the water that ominously surrounded his country, whereas Debussy imbues his work with a sense of wistful nostalgia at the respite the coast provides in his.
Hokusai's work as a point of inspiration for Debussy was solidified by the composer's use of a detail crop of "the Great Wave" on the cover of the 1905 first edition of La Mer published by A. Durand & Fils. Debussy was notorious for personally curating the cover artwork for his scores (he called it his "cover mania"), and in choosing "the Great Wave"—an image already so recognizable throughout Western Europe—Debussy immediately brought a sense of familiarity and exoticism to his new work. Just as Hokusai's print was on its way to the immortality it enjoys today as a symbol of the finest of nineteenth-century Japanese art, so was Debussy advertising that his new orchestral score would contain the power, elegance, and color of the work represented on its cover. And, in one last act of homage, Debussy placed his name on the score in the exact position where Hokusai's is located on his own work—floating in the sky, safely above the wave.
Hokusai's "Great Wave" is now on view in Gallery 231, complementing paintings by the artist and his pupils that are currently on display as part of the exhibition The Flowering of Edo Period Painting: Japanese Masterworks from the Feinberg Collection.
Now at the Met: Hokusai's Iconic "Great Wave"
Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History: Japonisme