Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson - Rachel Carson, Linda Lear (1999)

Part II

Chapter 11. Jacket Notes for the RCA Victor Recording of Claude Debussy’s La Mer / National Symphony Orchestra Speech

[1951]

RACHEL CARSON HAD no particular musical training, but she did have a poet’s understanding of the sea and a unique way of expressing her thoughts about it. After The Sea Around Us appeared, a representative of RCA Victor records invited her to write the jacket notes for a new NBC Symphony recording of Claude Debussy’s La Mer, with Arturo Toscanini conducting. Her jacket notes do not explicate Debussy’s music but suggest a different, no less lyrical, interpretation of the meaning and mystery of the sea and of the ancient world from which all life began.

A short time later, Carson was invited to speak at a small benefit luncheon for the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C. With President Truman’s wife, Bess, in attendance, Carson commented briefly on how the sea influenced the music of Debussy, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Sibelius. Her remarks on the role of the arts in times of crisis reflect the tensions produced by the Korean War. In what would become a theme of her future public comments, Carson suggests that contemplation of the long history of the earth can bring comfort and reassurance to people in desperate times. This speech also contains Carson’s first reference to the anxieties of living in the atomic age.

Jacket Notes for Debussy’s La Mer

image CLAUDE ACHILLE DEBUSSY was born in St. Germain-en-Laye, France, in 1862. In boyhood years he seems to have been strongly attracted to the sea; this, and his father’s hopes and ambitions for him pointed strongly toward a career in the Navy. Instead, “the chances of life” made him a musician. But Debussy, the composer, eventually returned to the dreams of his youth in one of his greatest compositions, La Mer, in which his intended and his chosen professions meet in brilliant synthesis.

So closely were Debussy’s emotions attuned to the sea that he confessed himself almost overwhelmed and benumbed in its presence. He could not compose easily within sight or sound of it, but rather in some inland spot from which his recollections could return in tranquillity to the beauty and power and mystery of the sea. And certainly there was more than factual memory that came to him. There must have been also an intuitive perception of the mysterious inner nature of the sea, of truths which the science of the ocean, in its infancy in Debussy’s time, had not yet discovered. We, who know some of these truths today, can discern them in this exquisitely beautiful evocation of the spirit of the sea.

Out of his “endless store of memories,” Debussy has created a world of water and sky, crossed by the hurrying forms of waves and holding endless converse with the great winds that ceaselessly blow over the surface of the earth. It is a timeless, elemental world, in which the passage of the years and the centuries and the eons are lost in time itself – a world that might be of the Archeozoic Era or of the Twentieth Century.

The three movements of La Mer are titled: 1) From dawn till noon on the sea; 2) Play of the waves; 3) Dialogue of the wind and the sea. These titles might suggest that the composer was preoccupied with surface manifestations, and indeed, the music is full of the shimmering beauty of the face of the sea and the sparkle of sun on water. But as the surface of the sea itself is the creation and the expression of the unseen depths beneath it, so, underlying his musical recreation of the coming of dawn to the sea and of the wind-driven processions of the waves across the ocean, Debussy has suggested the mysterious and brooding spirit of the deep and hidden waters.

In the serene music of the first movement there is all the evanescent beauty of the first coming of light across the sea, the tenuous, pure airs of dawn moving over the water when the east turns grey and the black wave shapes come ashimmer with silver light. The face of the sea is mobile, sensitive, always changing. As the hours advance, changing lights and colors and the shifting shadows of the clouds move across its surface. More deliberate and subtle is the descent of dawn into deeper waters. Fathom by fathom the light steals down toward the threshold of the deep sea, a thousand feet or more below the surface. Only the noonday sun, with its long, straight rays, has power to penetrate to that transition zone between the surface waters and the eternal night of the abyss; so in these deep waters, the brief hour of dawn passes quickly into the hour of twilight, and the blue light fades away into the long night.

The sea is never at rest. The thin interface between air and water is exquisitely sensitive to the slightest disturbance. A drop of rain, a seabird coming down to alight on the water, a fish cutting the surface with its fin, set spreading ripples in motion. And always the winds, blowing over the face of the globe, are pushing up the water into the moving ridges of waves. The open sea is a playground of waves created by many different winds, rolling on diverse paths, intermingling, overtaking, passing, or sometimes engulfing one another. Born of wind and water, each young wave takes its place in the confused pattern of the open sea. Drawing energy from the winds that created them, the waves respond to the fury of the storm, trailing white streamers of foam, leaping up into steep, peaked shapes, crowding upon their fellows in a wild, abandoned play. In the wide immensity of the open sea, a wave knows no restraint; were it not for the intercepting masses of the continents it might roll on and on around the earth. But nearing shore, it feels the alien land beneath it. Against the drag of shoaling bottom its speed slackens. Within the surf zone it suddenly rears high, as though gathering strength against an unknown adversary. A white, foaming crest begins to form along its advancing front, and suddenly this shining creation of the open sea plunges forward and dissolves in thunder.

The third movement of La Mer introduces a sterner mood in this ancient dialogue of the wind and the waters. Hearing it, we think of the great wind belts where the westerly winds blow across thousands of miles of open sea and the most majestic of all waves march with them around the globe. Of such winds and such waves are born the terrible surf of Tierra del Fuego, or the violent seas that burst upon the shores of the Orkneys, when air and sea and land are blended in a thick obscurity of spray and leaping foam and beating waves.

The waves are the most eloquent of the sea’s voices. In their wordless language they speak of the shrieking gales of the southern ocean, of the great anticyclonic winds sweeping around the Icelandic low, or they run directly ahead of an approaching storm, crying a warning. As they roll majestically in open ocean or as they break and surge at the edge of land, their voices are the voice of the sea.

What is this sea, and wherein lies its power so greatly to stir the minds of men? What is the mystery of it, intangible, yet inseparably its own? Perhaps part of the mystery resides in its hoary antiquity, for the sea is almost as old as earthly time. Its shadowy beginnings lie somewhere in that dim period when the earth was forming out of chaos, when deep basins were hollowed out of the cooling rocks and the rains began to fall from the thick cloud blanket that enveloped the earth. The rains poured upon the waiting basins, or falling upon the continents, drained away to become sea. And there began at once that slow erosion by which the continents are giving up their substance to the sea, by which the minerals are passing from earth to sea, and the sea is becoming ever more briny with the passing eons.

Or perhaps the spirit of the sea resides in the implacable, inexorable power by which it draws all things to it, by which it overwhelms and devours and destroys. The rivers run to it; the rains that rose from it return. For more than two billion years this sea has endured, changing yet seemingly changeless, while mountains have risen and been worn away, while islands have grown up from its floor, only to dissolve under the attack of rain and waves, and while the continents themselves have known the slow advance of engulfing seas, and again their slow retreat.

Or perhaps the mystery is the mystery of life itself – of life that began as a primordial bit of protoplasm adrift in the surface waters of the ancient seas. For hundreds of millions of years, all life was sea life, developing in prodigious abundance and variety, evolving into thousands of kinds of creatures, some of which finally crept out of the sea, some of which, after long eons of time, became men. But we as man carry the sea’s salt in our blood, and the trace of our marine heritage in our bodies, and perhaps something akin to a racial memory of that dim past lies within us.

A sense of some of these things may come to one who makes a long ocean voyage – when day after day he watches the receding rim of the horizon ridged and furrowed by waves; or when he stands alone in darkness on the deck at night, in a world compounded only of water and sky, and feels the brooding presence of the sea about him. And surely the sense of these things was in Debussy’s mind when he composed La Mer, capturing in immortal music the shining beauty, the awful power, and the eternal mystery of the sea.

National Symphony Orchestra Speech

image [ … ] I BELIEVE QUITE SINCERELY that in these difficult times we need more than ever to keep alive those arts from which men derive inspiration and courage and consolation – in a word, strength of spirit. I believe this more strongly because of my own recent experiences – if I may again speak quite personally.

After my book was published I began to receive a great deal of mail. These letters are still coming. They are from people of all ages, and both sexes, and of all degrees of education.

They have made it clear that men and women in all walks of life are responding in a surprising way to what I have written about the ocean. They are finding in it something that is helping them face the problems of these difficult times.

That “something” is, I think, a new sense of perspective on human problems. When we contemplate the immense age of earth and sea, when we get in the frame of mind where we can speak easily of “millions” or “billions” of years, and when we remember the short time that human life has existed on earth, we begin to see that some of the worries and tribulations that concern us are very minor. We also gain some sense of confidence that the changes and the evolution of new ways of life are natural and on the whole desirable.

It has come to me very clearly through these wonderful letters that people everywhere are desperately eager for whatever will lift them out of themselves and allow them to believe in the future.

I am sure that such release from tension can come through the contemplation of the beauties and mysterious rhythms of the natural world.

But I am also sure that it is to be had through music in its reflection of the amazing creative genius of man.

We need the inspiration that comes from hearing great music. The symphony orchestras that present and interpret the music of the ages are not luxuries in this mechanized, this atomic age. They are, more than ever, necessities.