The Music and Majesty of the Sea

Composers have been fascinated with the sea for hundreds of years. Its tumultuous waves instill a sense of wonderment in some and of terror in others, and its many secrets yearn to be discovered. Some of those composers have admired the glittering waves from afar, like Claude Debussy’s interest in paintings of the ocean over the physical waters, while others, such as Benjamin Britten, could never grow tired of the roaring waves. Time and time again, composers have marveled at the ocean; their experiences with the vast, mysterious waters are immortalized in the masterpieces they left behind.

The sea has been the backdrop for numerous theatrical works, including Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes and Billy Bud, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Riders to the Sea, Antonio Smareglia’s Oceàna, and Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de loin. Furthemore, it is the setting for several orchestral pieces, such as Ernest Chausson’s Poème de l’amour et de la mer, Ludwig van Beethoven’s Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt, Felix Mendelssohn’s Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt, Uuno Klami’s Sea Pictures, and Jean Sibelius’ The Oceanides.

While the aforementioned works were imagined with the sea as a background for the true meaning behind the work, they are not depictions of it. Several composers were inspired by the ocean itself, and they were able to complete incredible orchestral works that allow us to hear the sea as they did. It is not my intention to leave any work unrecognized, and I realize that several of the works I will be discussing are considered debatable. For those works that are not titled The Sea or La mer, I chose them because their texts or intention suggests that the sea is what is being musically depicted. They are all magnificent works, and I truly hope you have or will enjoy them as much as I do.

Edward Elgar

Sea Pictures, Op. 37

Originally written for soprano and piano, Elgar’s song cycle Sea Pictures was transposed to lower keys for the orchestral version to fulfill his desire to have Dame Clara Butt perform the work. The contralto performed the premiere with Elgar conducting at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival on October 5th, 1899; Clara Butt was lavishly, and appropriately, dressed as a mermaid. Two days later, on October 7th, Butt gave a performance of the cycle in London’s St. James Hall with Elgar at the piano. Clara Butt performed the work a third time that month on October 20th at Balmoral Castle in Scotland for Queen Victoria.

The cycle’s five songs are each set to different poems by five different poets: “Sea Slumber Song” by Roden Noel, “In Haven (Capri)” by Caroline Alice Elgar, “Sabbath Morning at Sea” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “Where Corals Lie” by Richard Garnett, and “The Swimmer” by Adam Lindsay Gordon. Edward Elgar took a great amount of liberties with the poems he chose, but what remained after the edits was a song cycle about the beauty and might of the sea seen through the eyes of the poets; the composer’s own depiction of the sea shines through in his shimmering score. While the work is often performed in its canonical version for contralto and orchestra (additionally taken on by mezzo-sopranos), it is still performed in its voice and piano version and transposed for the appropriate voice type.

Claude Debussy

La Mer, L. 109

After La mer’s world premiere in Paris on October 15th, 1905, the audience and critics were unenthusiastic about Claude Debussy’s new orchestral piece. Those hitherto admirers of Debussy’s work were disappointed by the lack of grandeur and majesty in music that was to illustrate something colossal. Pierre Lalo, son of composer Edouard Lalo, published in the newspaper Le Temps the following day, “I do not hear, I do not see, I do not smell the sea”. The work was performed in the United States in 1907 and in Great Britain in 1908; when the work returned to Paris in 1908, the outlook on the work converted to a positive one. La mer quickly became one of Debussy’s most sought after orchestral works.

Within the two years of the work’s composition, Debussy rarely visited the sea. His inspiration for La mer was drawn from art and memories of the ocean from his childhood rather than from admiration of its physical form. Although it is debated whether or not La mer is structurally a symphony, Debussy avoided using the term by labeling it “three symphonic sketches”. Despite his avoidance of the term “symphony”, Debussy was caught using the term on occasion. The composer completed the work in March of 1905 while staying at the Grand Hotel in Eastbourne, East Sussex, England on the coast of the English Channel. To this day it is one of the most performed and recorded works within the orchestral canon.

Ralph Vaughan Williams

A Sea Symphony (Symphony No. 1)

Composition of Vaughan Williams’ A Sea Symphony began the same year in which Debussy began his impressionistic depiction of the ocean; it took nearly three times as long to complete. It is the composer’s first and longest symphony, and its maturity disguises Vaughan Williams’ relative youth (he was 30 when sketches began). Premiered at the Leeds Festival in 1910 with Vaughan Williams at the podium, it is one of the first symphonies in which a chorus is intrinsic to the musical texture. Supplemental to the orchestra and chorus, soprano and baritone soloists are scored in the first and final movements; the baritone soloist gets an additional moment to shine in the second movement.

The text of A Sea Symphony is extracted from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Similarly to Elgar in his Sea Pictures, Vaughan Williams was liberal with his use of Whitman’s text. Only the poem used for the third movement, “After the Sea-ship”, is utilized in its entirety. Movement 1 contains a short excerpt from “Song of the Exposition” and a portion of “Song for All Seas, All Ships”, movement 2 borrows from “On the Beach at Night Alone”, and movement 4 is acquired from “Passage to India”. A Sea Symphony was integral in establishing the English symphony as well as bringing Vaughan Williams to international acclaim. The whet that was the majesty of the sea sparked by La mer had been quenched with A Sea Symphony; the work remains an important part of history and is one of the composer’s most frequently performed symphonies.

Frank Bridge

The Sea, H. 100

Unlike the previously mentioned works, Frank Bridge’s The Sea is a purely orchestral portrait of the physical aspects of the sea. Elgar, Debussy, and Vaughan Williams, still depicting “the sea itself”, rely on text or other mediums of art to paint their seascape. Bridge completed the work in July of 1911 in Eastbourne, East Sussex, England, the same town where Debussy had completed La mer. The Sea received its premiere at a Prom Concert on September 24th, 1912 in London with the New Queen’s Hall Orchestra conducted by Sir Henry Wood. After World War I, the composer himself would take the work to the United States and conduct it with the Cleveland Orchestra, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and Boston Symphony Orchestra. One of the most important performances of the piece was at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival on October 30th, 1924. The young Benjamin Britten was in attendance that night; it was the first piece of modern music he heard. Bridge would later become Britten’s teacher and the tributee to many of the latter’s compositions.

The Sea is structured in four movements, Seascape, Sea Foam, Moonlight, and Storm. For the work’s London premiere, Bridge wrote comments for each movement for the program notes. Each describe different moods of the sea, and some movements are during particular seasons or times of the day. Bridge’s seascape is not performed nearly as often as the aforementioned compositions, but its expertly crafted colors, harmonies, and textures place it in a league with the rest, if not above them.

Benjamin Britten

Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, Op. 33a

Britten’s Four Sea Interludes were extracted from his decidedly successful opera Peter Grimes. Within the structure of the opera, the interludes set the mood for things to come, avoiding any structural separation between acts. Op. 33a does not include all the interludes from the opera, omitting Interlude 4: Passacaglia. Furthermore, the Four Sea Interludes to not adhere to the order they appear in the opera; Interlude 2: Storm is moved to Interlude 4 to create a wave of excitement in Op. 33a’s finale.

The Four Sea Interludes are just as popular on concert stages as its mother opera Peter Grimes is in opera houses around the world. Inspired by his teacher’s orchestral suite, Britten’s suite mirrors Bridge’s in structure, color, and a few of the movement’s titles (Moonlight and Storm). On its own, the Interludes also resemble Bridge’s goal in portraying the moods, characteristics, and beauty of the sea. Within the context of the opera, these moods and characteristics are impregnated into the people and their personalities as they progress through the opera. The interludes manipulate the world in which they live. It is through this that Britten forces us to look at the power of the sea from a different angle.

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Published by Stephen J. Trygar

I am a musicologist and music historian currently residing in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. My primary focus is on theatrical music (opera, ballet, and incidental music) and symphonic music.

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