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8 Pieces of Classical Music Inspired by the Sea

Frances Metcalfe first learnt to read music at the age of four. She is now a retired peripatetic music teacher specialising in the violin.

Waves breaking in the sea

Waves breaking in the sea

The Sea as Inspiration

Composers are often drawn toward the outdoors, nature, and the elements. Many loved to take walks, which helped them think about the music they were in the process of writing, and it's no surprise the sounds are incorporated into their works.

The sea is capable of provoking fear, awe, and wonder with a beauty to inspire the fertile mind. Here are eight works of classical music influenced by this contrary of elements.

1. Wagner: "The Flying Dutchman"

The Flying Dutchman is an early stage work by Wagner and probably the most listener-friendly for the less hardened of us unused to heavy opera.

Wagner was continually drawn to legends as the foundation stones for stories on which to base his operas. Seafarers were a superstitious breed, not unreasonable when one considers the dreadful conditions they were forced to cope with - and they were just from the sea itself. Never mind combating all the sea could throw at them, there were the the possibility of pirates and hostile receptions when setting foot on foreign and unexplored lands, not to mention diseases and crowded conditions in the hull..

There are various longitudes and latitudes where it is supposed the fabled Dutchman got into difficulties captaining his ship, the most popular being the Cape of Good Hope, notoriously formidable to navigate. The story winds its own journey twisting this way and that, as does the ship, from the lips of a crowd gathered on the shore watching a vessel desperately trying to make passage into the harbour. As they observe during the storm their vision is obscured by a great cloud which subsequently disappears. This cloud becomes the ship, transformed into an apparition, never to be seen again.

The apparation became the fundamental backbone to the tale, on which could be fleshed out all manner of possibilities to explain the ghostly appearance. And who better than blame it on some dreadful misdemeanor by the captain, murder being a strong favourite? Why else would he still be tacking his ship around the seven seas, never able to dock? This in turn would explain away the phenomenon of mirages experienced by sailors.

To complete the sorry tale, it was reputed that a Dutch man o' war foundered at the Cape with the loss of the whole crew, completing the idea of The Flying Dutchman forever roaming the high seas.

Wagner wrote his own libretti, adapting the story and setting it in Norway - here the Dutchman is cursed to a continual voyage due to blasphemy - and introducing a love element brought possibility of writing for soprano on board. In his version, the doomed ship pulls aside a second. The Dutchman and the opposite captain's daughter, Senta fall in love. She declares she will love the Dutchman until death and throws herself into the sea, releasing him from the curse.

The Flying Dutchman received its first performance at the Royal Saxon Opera, Dresden 1843 where he was musical director. One of Wagner's great contributions to the genre was for his characters to sing their own themes which recur throughout the work, or in the case of the Ring Cycle, several works. These are called leitmotifs.

He writes sumptuous but challenging music for the soloists, requiring a great deal of stamina (also, it could be argued, for the audience!), However this, his first truly great opera, is very accessible with great tunes and haunting drama in the resplendent horn writing conjuring up the outline of the ship out of the gloom. It lasts around two and a half hours, short for Wagner.

2. Benjamin Britten: "Peter Grimes"

Benjamin Britten did not shy away form dark themes as inspirational subjects .The War Requiem dealt with pacifist ideals and the opera The Turn of the Screw used Henry James' haunting and ambiguous novel of the same name. Peter Grimes is an opera about an outsider and the prejudice of a tight knit fishing community. It is best known in the adaptation Britten made from the full scale work, the Four Sea Interludes, but it has drawn great acclaim and popularity in its complete version.

The parallel between the antagonism towards the aggressive Grimes, who the town blame for his apprentice's death on his boat, and the unpredictability of the sea is written into the music. It rocks back and forth, spilling over into anger and violence and destruction. Britten's mastery in painting the raging open waters mirroring the turbulence unfolding back on land ensures this work will remain a favourite of opera house repertory.

Edward Elgar 1857–1934

Edward Elgar 1857–1934

3. Elgar: "Sea Pictures"

Elgar had a great affinity with the outdoors and was fond of walking in the Malvern hills near where he lived.

Sea Pictures is a five movement song cycle for soprano and orchestra and one of Elgar's best loved works. The contralto Clara Butt too an interest in performing it and Elgar transposed it down from th soprano range so she could sing it with her lower voice. It was Clara Butt who premiered the work in 1899, and a few months later travelled to Balmoral in Scotland at the request of Queen Victoria to perform it there.

The Haven, the second song in the cycle, was actually composed two years before the other Sea Pictures movements, The poem was written by Elgar's wife, Alice, and had appeared originally in a slightly altered guise in a publication called The Dome under the title Love Alone Will Stay. The other poems are Sea Slumber Song, Sabbath Morning at Sea, Where Corals Lie, (my personal favourite) and The Swimmer. Elgar's writing isn't of the huge waves and force nine gale of the Benjamin Britten, it's a gentler voyage through the brine with some large shots of spray. The recording of Janet Baker and Sir John Barbirolli is a classic and in my own collection of vinyl.

Claude Debussy 1862–1918

Claude Debussy 1862–1918

4. Debussy: "La Mer"

La Mer is one of the classic works of the twentieth century composed by one of the most innovative composers to have come out of France, or indeed, out of Europe.

Debussy was particularly moved by JMW Turner's hazy style, pre-empting the largely French Impressionist movement with which Debussy is associated. La Mer could be said to reflect Turner's works, shrouded in mist and fog and demanding the viewer to see beyond the haze.

The full title is The Sea, Three Symphonic Sketches For Orchestra, and it was completed in 1905 while Debussy was taking a long holiday on the south coast of England. Conversely he wasn't enamoured by the sea and didn't enjoy the journey over from France. To capture the essence and grandeur of his chosen subject, Debussy brings on board large orchestral forces and a percussion section including glockenspiel and tamtam. The three sections, From Dawn to Midday on the Sea, Play of the Waves, and Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea, are conjured up in glistening harmonies and expansive sweeps of orchestral colour highlighted with the alluring influence of Javanese gamelan.

In this work Debussy wishes the listener to absorb the atmosphere he creates, literally to allow the music to wash over them, rather than to imagine a specific prgramme. Great crescendos and diminuendos symbolise the rise and fall of the waves and the eddying unpredictability of the sea. The glint of the sun on the water is depicted by the metallic quality of the glockenspiel, curls of sound whisk up waves, but no story as such to hang the music on. It is music for music's sake.

Immerse yourself in the seascape Debussy has conceived and allow yourself to be swept out to sea.

To read about classical music inspired by rivers click on the link.

Afternoon of a Faun: How Debussy Created a New Music for the Modern World

Charles-Valentin Alkan 1813–1888

Charles-Valentin Alkan 1813–1888

5. Alkan: "The Song of the Mad Woman on the Sea Shore"

Alkan, a composer and pianist who has largely lapsed into obscurity was not only great friends with Chopin, but also his immediate neighbour, and greatly admired by later composer-pianists including Debussy, Ravel and Rachmaninov.

Like Chopin, Alkan wrote almost exclusively for the piano, mostly virtuosic in vein, though there are some more modest works in terms of ability. He was highly sensitive, perhaps because he was a devout Jew and constantly battling against the anti-semitism that was rife at the time in France. He could however be a great wit and good company according to those close to him, even composing a parody of Rossini he called Funeral March on the Death of a Parrot. Rossini, apparently, was fond of parrots. After Chopin died, Alkan lost a soulmate and possibly became more withdrawn and melancholy as a result.

The Song of the Mad Woman on the Sea Shore is reflective of his state of mind. He wrote to a friend, “I’m becoming daily more and more misanthropic and misogynous…nothing worthwhile, good or useful to do… no one to devote myself to. My situation makes me horridly sad and wretched. Even musical production has lost its attraction for me for I can’t see the point or goal”.

The piano writing is a long cry from the perception that Alkan's output is impossibly difficult to play. The simple bass is the tide in a never-ending to-ing and fro-ing whilst the mad woman's harrowing outpouring of grief wails high above, climaxing in a demented flood of heartache. The harmony fluctuates between major and minor, never settled, as is the mad woman's soul.

Felix Mendelssohn 1810–1849

Felix Mendelssohn 1810–1849

6. Mendelssohn: "Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage"

Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage is based on two poems by the renowned German poet Goethe which caught the attention of both Beethoven and Mendelssohn. The Mendelssohn work sets out, as one might expect sedately, smoothly slipping its mooring as gliding steadily over flat seas. This calm sea belies the nervousness passengers in the early nineteenth century would have undergone - no wind, no progress. The later section of the work presents the sea as a heroic character, getting up a head of steam and carrying its visitors on its back of waves.

Trumpets announce the ship sailing safely into harbour, and the quiet downbeat ending, almost as a sigh of relief that all is well and the passengers can take steady steps again on dry land.

Jean Sibelius 1865–1957

Jean Sibelius 1865–1957

7. Sibelius: "The Oceanides"

Sibelius wrote the work as a result of a commision from a wealthy America patron of the arts and his wife, Carl and Ellen Stoekel and was first performed at their venue in Norfolk, Connecticut in 1914, Sibelius himself conducting at their request.

Stipulations for the comissioned piece were to be around a quarter of an hour long, and take the form of a tone poem. Sibelius turned to a favourite theme - legends - to base his music on.

The Oceanides, according to Greek and Roman mythology, are sea nymphs, three thousand of them, daughters of Oceanus and Tethys. The most famous are Styx, famously presiding over the river to the underworld, and Metis who was Zeus' first wife. All the Oceanides are associated with an aspect of nature, clouds, streams, lakes, flowers and so on.

The Oceanides is typically Sibelian, the harmonies reminiscent of his first symphony, when he was still finding his feet as a composer, the double flutes and string writing a reminder of his second. He uses chromatic scales in the strings rising low to high together with a swelling crescendo meeting with a brassy chord to create the impression of the might of the sea. In fact it has overtones of Debussy's La Mer, a stillness is settled over the ocean before inciting the arcing sweep of the waves.

Maurice Ravel 1875–1937

Maurice Ravel 1875–1937

8. Ravel: "Une Barque Sur l'Ocean"

During the very early 1900s, a French group of composers, pianists, poets and artists formed a like-minded group and called themselves The Apaches. It took the name form the North American tribe, but also conjures up the added connotation of hooligans. As well as Ravel, members included Igor Stravinsky, Manuel de Falla and Eduard Benedictus.

Une Barque Sur l'Ocean was one of five pieces Ravel wrote in tribute to his fellow Apaches, calling it appropriately Mirroirs. This, the third in the set, translated as A Boat on the Ocean is dedicated to Paul Sordes. Being the fulcrum of the suite, it is the longest, on which the two either side pivot.

Another Apache, the pianist Roger Viñes, gave the first performance of this highly virtuosic work. This centrepiece of Mirroirs evokes the restlessness of the sea, rippling waves in the form of arpeggios as the boat makes its passage.

To read about mirrors inspiring composers click here.

Further Reading

  • Classical Music Inspired by the Earth
    The earth is home to a myriad of flora and fauna and humans who have inhabited every continent of the planet. Read how composers have been inspired by our fascinating globe.
  • Classical Music Inspired by Travel
    Read about composers' visions of travel. Ravel, Mahler, Honegger, Offenbach, Vaughan Williams, Jan Sandström, and John Adams all composed pieces based on a form of transport, boats, bikes, locomotives, and airplanes, and of course, feet.
  • 7 Pieces of Classical Music Inspired by the Moon
    For thousands of years, man has been fascinated by the moon, finally landing on it in 1969. Read about inspiration taken from the moon by composers Haydn, Beethoven, Debussy, Schonberg, Britten, Dvorak, Janacek and Vítězslav Novak.

Questions & Answers

Question: Where is Frank Bridge's 'The Sea' (1911)?

Answer: There are many pieces out there that refer to the sea, but I haven't included them all, just as in my other articles I haven't included absolutely everything there is to research. The articles would end up simply being far too long. However, you can find him on another article:

© 2017 Frances Metcalfe

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