Sea Music from Debussy to Britten  



Sea Music from Debussy to Britten

The opera Billy Budd received much criticism after its premier from numerous critics. These critics touched upon many aspects of the opera, such as the characters, the libretto, and the music. One critic from the ‘London Music Critic’ wrote a critique on Britten’s composition for the opera. He mentions Britten’s use of recurring themes, the fact that there are no female voices present and the symbolism of Melville’s story being present in the music. There is one particular point the critic wrote about that caught my attention. He states that even though Billy Budd takes place on the sea, the music does not portray this setting at all. The fact that there is “no storm and only a mist” during the opera strikes the critic as odd. After reading his statement, I wondered what led the critic to believe that Britten’s music in Billy Budd failed to portray the sea setting? The first thought that came into my mind was Claude Debussy and how his music has much relation to the sea. Maybe, the critic was comparing Britten’s composition to those of Debussy’s.

Debussy is said to be the first modern composer. He strayed away from what critics “deemed” music should sound like. Like Britten, Debussy conveyed lots of emotions through his music and embraced the contemporary culture of the time. One of the biggest connections with Debussy is his music and the sea. Debussy said that he “was destined for the fine life of the sailor” and “has a great passion for the sea.” It known that Britten grew up by the sea and therefore has associations with it. Even though Britten never bluntly stated his love for the sea, it is known that he grew up by the sea and was around it quite often.

A piece that is recognized by many as sea music is Debussy’s La Mer. I feel that the critic from the ‘London Music Critic’ used this piece as a standard for comparison to Britten’s music in Billy Budd. La Mer, “The Sea”, was written in relation to Debussy’s memories of the sea from his childhood. The piece has many lines, strange combinations of instruments, unresolved progressions, parallel movement and fragmented themes. If the critic has this particular piece in mind while critiquing the setting of Billy Budd being at sea, then most likely he won’t find any indication of what he understands as “sea music.” Britten’s music does not particular have the same features as La Mer. Even though Debussy’s music, particularly La Mer, has a relation to the sea, doesn’t mean anything else related to the sea that doesn’t sound like it, isn’t sea music.

The critic from the ‘London Music Critic’ didn’t justify his opinion, to me, as to why he believed the music wasn’t connected to the opera’s setting. Just because there wasn’t “a storm” doesn’t necessarily mean Britten didn’t grasp the idea of being at the sea. Britten’s composition for the opera was well written and portrays a lot of what need to be such as the idea between good and evil and the setting taking place at sea.

Caitlyn Collette


Britten, Benjamin, Donald Mitchell, Philip Reed, and Mervyn Cooke. Letters From a Life: The Selected Letters of Benjamin Britten. London: Faber, 2004: 697.

Oliver, Michael . “Reputation Growing Steadily: 1934-9.” In Benjamin Britten, 45-72. London: Phaidon, 1996.


Spence, Keith. “Debussy at Sea.” The Musical Times 120, no. 1638 (1979): 640-42. doi:10.2307/962465.

Zukerman, Joseph. “Debussy.” The American Scholar 14, no. 3 (1945): 335-40.


One Comment Add yours

  1. yuelucui says:

    Hi Caitlyn, I like your unique perspective that compared Debussy with Britten. As a pianist I love Debussy’s piano works, in my personal opinion, Debussy is very good at using the colorful tone to describe the scenery, like impressionist painting. Debussy’s La Mer showed the “sea” scenery and its dynamic character through the different range of the orchestra. The creative harmony, various timbre and the free structure which describe a vivid picture of the sea.


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