In April, 2023 I received an email from the Canadian conductor Jordan de Souza asking for some advice about the cymbal part in Debussy’s La mer. Jordan’s questions and my reply are below.
I’m a young Canadian conductor working mostly in Europe. I’m studying La mer for concerts in Dortmund this week and came across your excellent articles. Any chance you might have time for a consult this week? Would love to hear your detailed thoughts on La mer and how best to guide and give space to a percussion section in this piece. Sorry I found you so late: I leave for first rehearsals tomorrow!
Thanks for your email, and congratulations on the work you’re doing in Europe. Great that you can conduct La mer in Dortmund. I’m not a conductor, so I can only imagine how thrilling it must be to take on a complex score like that.
Jordan, I’m not sure I would have much useful advice on the conducting side of this. I’ve played the glockenspiel and cymbal parts a few times, but I haven’t spent my career in an orchestra percussion section. When I’ve played the cymbal parts to La mer and Daphnis I approached them in a very personal way, with let’s say “idiosyncratic” instrument selections, and the conductors gave me a lot of latitude. Most professional orchestra sections have their preferred cymbal setups, and usually interpret these parts based on the orchestra’s tradition, or the players’ teachers’ approach. Unless you want to hear very specific cymbal characteristics in certain passages – high and bright (the very last tremolo for example), darker and/or lower pitch (larger and thinner cymbals), broader and/or richer sound (using two cymbals simultaneously) – I would embrace the orchestra players’ decisions based on the equipment they, or the orchestra possess, and the traditions of execution they represent. I love the sound of cymbals, and most sound good to me if I keep an open mind. Toru Takemitsu was fond of pointing out that writing for cymbals was one of the most difficult jobs in orchestration, because no two sound alike and no matter how specific the composer tries to be in the score (for example, “19 inch, medium heavy, Viennese-style…”) it’s still unpredictable exactly how the part will sound. Frankly, I like surprises, and the various choices different players make for these parts help define a unique interpretation. Arnie Lang, the great percussionist with the NY Phil once told me it’s one thing to know the part, but the important thing is to know the music. If your cymbal player really knows and loves the music in La mer, then their cymbal choices will be perfect.
Good luck and safe travels,