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ClassicsOnline Home » SEA IN MUSIC (THE)
Composers have been inspired by the sea for centuries. For some the stimulus is the sea’s volatility and power to destroy, whilst for others it’s the rhythmic and colouristic opportunities that allow them to paint pictures in sound. These composers take us on journeys both actual and metaphorical, discovering immensity and stillness, and hinting at mystery, and the unknowable chasms between the world of the human and the world of watery nature.
The Sea in Music
Man’s relation with the sea is profound. For composers it has been the focus of ideas and feelings, sounds and colours, journeys both actual and metaphorical, and more even than these, a source of mystery, not only on the surface but in the depths below. For some composers the sea has proved descriptive; in the eighteenth century Vivaldi called one of his Violin Concertos ‘La tempesta di mare’, and here he focused on the volatile idea of a storm in music, much as Beethoven was later to do in a graphically different way in the Pastoral Symphony.
For other composers a singular event determined their compositional approach. Mendelssohn’s tour to Scotland, which included a voyage by steamer (which made the composer sea-sick), produced The Hebrides, also known as Fingal’s Cave, a romanticised evocation of his journeying. What contemporary painters tried to evoke on canvas, so Mendelssohn tried to summon up in his music and the result was just as thrilling. Mendelssohn’s music was based on an actual voyage, but Richard Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman is a figure of legend. Wagner binds leitmotifs in the overture to his opera but doesn’t fail to illustrate the rush and the visceral tang of seascape and wind, features that are especially popular for composers. They encourage a great wash of colour, vitality of rhythm and genuine excitement.
A later generation of composers turned to stillness, refraction and mystery. The impressionists, led by Debussy in La Mer, give us symphonic sketches of great breadth, using a large orchestra to explore a mosaic of sounds and textures, from dawn stillness through an evocation of the lapping waves, to a final conversation of wind and sea. This dazzling exploration of the sea’s immensity and its mysterious stillness appeals to composers. The English composer John Ireland explored the sinister aspects of the sea in some of his piano pieces, Arnold Bax celebrated its drama in Tintagel, and Alexander Glazunov made the connection between the sea’s torrent and eventual calm and the effect it has on a man’s soul in The Sea, Op. 28. Benjamin Britten’s Four Sea Interludes are painterly in their precision, and in aligning and reflecting the world of nature—torrid, unexpected and dangerous—with the turmoil of a man’s mind.
Composers such as Frank Bridge and Ralph Vaughan Williams have also explored the symphonic implications of the sea, utilising calm, passion, storm and resolution in their sketches or movements—whilst hinting at mystery, and the unknowable chasms between the world of the human and the world of watery nature—which elsewhere include whales, mermaids, and submerged cathedrals amongst others.
Of course songs celebrate the sea too. There are many sea shanties and art songs—John Ireland’s Sea Fever is one of the best known—and poetic texts fuse with salty windswept music depiction to heighten the drama. And the sea continues to exert its hold on composers of our generation, whether in isolated songs or in the deployment of all the forces of the modern orchestra and its possibilities for surging opulence. The sea has taken on a character, and has proved the centrepiece in its own musical depiction.
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SEA IN MUSIC (THE)