By the Sea
As the vacation days of summer start dwindling down to a precious few, I’m thinking a few days at the beach are in order. We coastal New Englanders grow up appreciating the wild beauty right at our doorstep and miss it if we’re away from it for too long.
Before I go to my annual beach vacation, I thought I’d share a few pieces of music where composers honored the sea. I’ve already written a blog post about some water pieces in classical music---from Scottish sea caves to raindrops to fountains. You can read that one here.
This time, let’s focus on the oceans.
Many composers through history who wrote programmatic music seemed to hold a fascination with the ocean. While some of those oceans were described musically as beautiful vistas, others concentrated on turbulent seas.
Like yours truly, Maurice Ravel, a city dweller, often vacationed at a favorite seaside resort where his family had a home. The house, which faces the harbor of St. Jean-de-Luz, has been since turned into a museum and local travel office. Easy to imagine Ravel looking out a front window and getting inspiration for Une barque sur l’ocean (A boat on the ocean). It’s the third and largest movement of a 1904-05 suite titled Miroirs. It describes a boat just going with the flow. The scene he paints begins peacefully, but when the water swells, he makes sure you feel that motion, and the danger, too, of a ship at sea. Jean-Yves Thibaudet plays a beautiful rendition.
The story goes that Ravel’s fellow countryman, Claude Debussy, always wanted to be a sailor. He and some companions finally got a chance to travel in a ship off the coast of Brittany during a storm. That experience was enough to change his mind. From that point on he satisfied his ocean urges by admiring paintings of the sea, especially the seascapes of J. M. W. Turner and Hokusai’s “The Great Wave off Kanagawa,” which he chose as the cover design for the final published version of La mer in 1905. Here’s the whole piece with Vladimir Ashkenazy conducting the Cleveland Orchestra.
Now keep the sounds of La mer in your mind. In 1991 Toru Takemitsu wrote Quotation of a Dream: Say Sea, Take Me! The title of this double piano concerto is taken from an Emily Dickinson poem, and reflects his own longing for the sea. Although a very contemporary sound, Takemitsu quotes frequently from Debussy’s La mer. Pianists Noriko Ogawa and Kathryn Stott play here with the BBC Philharmonic conducted by Juanjo Mena.
I imagine English composer Frank Bridge writing The Sea while staring out at it because it is so spot-on that, to me, it sounds like a musical photo. In four movements over 22 minutes he captures everything you can imagine he was seeing: an overall view in “Seascape,” sunlit reflections bouncing off of “Sea Foam,” gentle “Moonlight,” and finally a pretty vigorous “Storm.” While he lets the storm die down at around 20 minutes in, he lets the sea remind you of its magnificence in the final minute. Richard Hickox conducts the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.
Eight short pieces make up Edward MacDowell’s 1898 piano suite Sea Pieces. He published them with an explanatory comment or poem on the first page of each. The first one, “To the Sea,” is loud and grand. The third, “A.D. MDCXX” (or 1620) is about the Mayflower’s ocean voyage. “The Nautilus,” the 7th piece, is lighthearted, almost fairy-tale like. Here playing all eight is Fred Karpoff.
Jean Sibelius’s Oceanides looks to ancient Greek and Roman mythology. The Oceanides are three thousand ocean nymphs who are the daughters of Oceanus and Tethys. Each nymph-daughter is associated with something in nature, and according to the poet Hesiod, their mission was to “serve the earth and the deep waters.” The piece was commissioned by an American patron of the arts to be played at the Norfolk Music Festival in Connecticut, where it premiered in 1914. Sibelius himself conducted the piece to great applause. Antonio Pappano conducts the London Symphony Orchestra.
After the premiere the man who commissioned the piece wrote “Everyone who was fortunate enough to be in the audience agreed that it was the musical event of their lives…”
Forget about the “sun and fun” surfer boy music of the Beach Boys. In fact, I really didn’t find much fun-on-the-beach music in the classical genre. Charles-Valentin Alkan’s The Song of the Mad Woman on the Sea Shore is probably the most well-known of beach-side pieces. It’s a dark and moody piece, where the unsettled ocean tides and the mad woman’s outpouring of grief mimic each other. Some say it’s tough to listen to but I’ve found that it has a way of just drawing you in. The pianist is Ethan James McCollum.
In contrast to that beach scene, Percy Grainger’s arrangements of two Irish reels, “Temple Hill” and “Molly on the Shore,” does put the “happy” back on the beach. Here’s Grainger’s final version of "Molly on the Shore" played by the United States Air Force Band.
By the way, Grainger made this arrangement as a birthday gift for his mother. Any mom would be thrilled with this fun piece!
The beauty, majesty, and mystery of the oceans can never be adequately described. I think human words fail our seas in that respect, but just from these few examples it’s clear composers knew how to do it.
As for me, the sea is calling, and I must go. See you back here in two weeks!
CODA: The classical music-trained composer-pianist, Antonio Carlos Jobim, was inspired by fellow Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos. Although Jobim wrote numerous classical pieces and film scores, he is considered the king of both samba and bossa nova. The most famous bossa nova piece, Jobim’s Wave, is actually about the ocean waves caressing Rio de Janeiro’s beach. Here is Jobim
teaming up with Herbie Hancock at the 1993 Free Jazz Festival in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Close your eyes, turn up the volume, and I promise they’ll whisk you away to the beach in under five minutes!