The Japanese Wave

La Mer cover

The original cover of Debussy’s score of La Mer (above) featured – at the composer’s request – a woodblock print by the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai, The Great Wave at Kanagawa; you can see the original below.

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A huge wave, reflecting and dwarfing the distant Mount Fuji, breaks over hapless fishermen in boats. The elemental power and danger of the sea is brilliantly and succinctly captured, but the print also demonstrates, it seems, the artist’s profound knowledge of the structure and behaviour of marine wave patterns (he’d studied them for over thirty years).

And Debussy’s score? Well, it’s perhaps the greatest of musical depictions of the sea, paralleling in sound both Hokusai’s visual sense of vast inhuman forces at play and the minute precision of the printmaker’s observation.

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