This is the second in a weekly series that will seek to break down the mists and myths that put people off the vast treasure house that is classical music. Each time, I’ll take a theme and choose 5 pieces or excerpts (from over 600 years’ worth of music) and then round it all off with one larger work.
Hence 5&1 from 600!
It doesn’t matter where you are in Great Britain (that is England, Scotland and Wales), you are always within striking distance of the sea. You are never more than 70 miles from it, as the crow flies, to be precise (which, alas, may have precious little to do with Google Maps-, traffic- and road-network-dependent journey times). So it’s natural for this island’s culture to be profoundly shaped by its relationship to the sea and no accident that the secret of the British Empire’s dimensions and longevity was the Royal Navy (not to mention both the spread and abolition of the slave trade).
Inevitably, then, the sea looms large in Britain’s musical heritage.
Sea Pictures 5. The Swimmer (Op. 37)
—Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934, English)
Dame Janet Baker (contralto), Sir John Barbirolli, London Symphony
If people have an impression of Elgar at all (by no means guaranteed these days!), it is that of a rather stiff, tweedy bastion of the imperial establishment (reinforced by his knighthood). The reality couldn’t have been more different. He always felt like an outsider, the combination of being the son of a provincial piano tuner and because of the Catholicism he learned from his mother. His music constantly seems to ache with a profound melancholy (even when at his most whimsical, as in Enigma Variations). But he also manages to evoke something indefinably British, and even particularly English. Somehow the Sea Pictures (even more than his Pomp & Circumstance marches associated in the US with graduation ceremonies) remind me how embedded my Englishness really is!
This is the classic performance with the great Janet Baker, recorded in 1965 in Abbey Road studios (in the months between the Beatles’ recording Help! and Rubber Soul). Classics all!
Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes 3. Sunday Morning by the Beach (Op. 33, 1945)
—Benjamin Britten (1913-1976, English) Sir Colin Davis, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
Britten was the greatest British composer of the 20th Century, and arguably the most versatile and creative one since Henry Purcell in the 17th Century. (I know, I know, you were all confused by that, but actually Handel was not English. He settled in London when he was 27 and remained until his death nearly 50 years later; but he was, of course, born German). Britten grew up on the Suffolk coast and never lived away from it for long (apart from 1939-42 when he and his partner Peter Pears lived in the States at the behest of W. H. Auden.) When he came across the book by George Crabbe called The Borough, he was gripped and would write one of his most stunning operas based on it: Peter Grimes. It is set in a village loosely based on Aldeburgh, the seaside town where Britten & Pears lived for over 25 years. The Sea Interludes powerfully evoke the ocean’s unpredictable moods but they have an even greater resonance for me. I spent the whole of the 1980s (my teenage years) growing up only 15 miles away (incidentally, very near to where BBC’s Detectorists was filmed).
Fantasia on British Sea Songs (1905)
—Sir Henry Wood (1869-1944, English) Barry Wordsworth, BBC Concert Orchestra
If Britten’s Peter Grimes is serious, and even great, music, Henry Wood’s Fantasia certainly is not! It is a string of old sea shanties (sailors’ songs sung to keep them energised and working in sync while they managed the sails). Henry Wood is best known today as the founder (in 1895) of the Promenade concerts that take place every summer in the Royal Albert Hall (now known as the BBC Proms). This is arguably one of the largest music festivals in the world, with 2 if not 3 concerts happening daily for 8 weeks (Covid-permitting!). The Last Night of the Proms is a faintly absurd but fun jamboree, in which Wood’s Fantasia is an annual feature. During its performance, the promenaders (those with standing only tickets who get right in front of the stage) can be relied upon to bob up and down, make silly noises and generally try to put the orchestra off.
Sea-Fever (a setting of John Masefield’s poem)
—John Ireland (1879-1962, English) Roderick Williams (baritone), Iain Burnside (piano)
In complete contrast, we follow a poet daydreaming about why he loves taking solitary cliff-top walks on the coast. John Masefield’s poem is greatly loved for good reason and it has been set to music many times, undoubtedly because of its musicality and onomatopoeic rhythms. This setting by John Ireland (who, ironically enough, was English of Scottish extraction, despite his surname) is heart-meltingly gorgeous and with simply a voice and piano, wonderfully evokes maritime flora, fauna and people. You can find the full text here.
—Sir Arnold Bax (1883-1953, English) Vernon Handley, BBC Philharmonic
On the north Cornwall coast, in the part of the country that stretches out into the Atlantic, sits the small village of Tintagel. It is a beautiful spot and draws tourists from all over the world. The reason (apart from the beauty)? King Arthur, of course! The stunning ruins of Tintagel Castle cling precariously to the cliff-face and it is on this site that Arthur was supposedly conceived (adulterously, after a cunning ruse of Merlin and Arthur’s biological father, Uther Pendragon), born and raised. What a gift to creative minds! Tennyson, Hardy, Anthony Trollope and Edith Wharton were all inspired by visits, as were Elgar and Arnold Bax. In just 15 minutes of orchestral colours, Bax transports us across seas and centuries to a place of magic and wonder. It has it all.
Symphony No. 1 ‘A Sea Symphony’ (1910)
—Ralph Vaughan-Williams (1872-1958, English) Sir Andrew Davis, BBC Symphony
This is a surprising but captivating symphony. It is long (at 70 minutes, it’s RV-W’s longest) and requires not only a large orchestra but also a choir and two solo singers. This is because he was inspired by several sea-themed poems by Walt Whitman around which he constructs the symphony. So here is an American inspiration of a very cosmopolitan symphonic composer but with the result of something that is uncannily evocative of the waters of the North Sea, English Channel, and Irish Sea, despite the composer’s insistence that it has resonance for all sea-faring cultures. And there can be no uncertainty at all about the theme —within the opening seconds, the chorus cries out: ‘Behold! The Sea!’
There are four movements:
I – A Song for all Seas, all ships (ca 20 minutes!)
II – On the Beach at Night alone (ca 10 minutes)
III – The Waves (8 minutes)
IV – The Explorers (ca 30 minutes!)
That may seem very long and drawn-out. But I can assure you that there isn’t a dull moment! I find a spot of air-conducting hard to resist at various points, even if driving in the fast line of the motorway. That the sea continued to inspire RV-W is clear from his 7th Symphony, which he entitled Sinfonia Antarctica. But that’s to run before walking. There’s plenty to be getting on with before we head to the far south!