Stand looking outwards on a beach and it feels like you’ve reached the edge of the world. The vast emptiness of sea and sky before you merge into a gradual gradient of blue and the whole crescendo of humanity at your back comes to a sudden stillness of sand and water. It’s no surprise that for centuries composers have plunged the oceans' depths for inspiration, portraying everything from its calm flat surface of endless horizons to the unforgiving relentlessness of stormy nights. Here are just a few of my favourite examples of composers and the sea.
Let us first look at the baroque, and a composer who is no stranger to expressing the power of the natural world through music. Vivaldi may be best known for his Four Seasons but he amassed a collected work totalling over 800 pieces in his lifetime, and counting. Here I have chosen one of his sacred works, Sum in medio tempestatum RV632 (I am in the midst of the stormy weather), where Vivaldi likens the human condition to that of a ship on stormy seas. From the start we hear stabs of lightning as the tension builds and the soprano cries ‘Horrors from this side, terror from that…” before finding safety and tranquillity in her faith in God.
Grace Williams was arguably Wales’ first prominent female composer, and the first woman to compose for a feature film. Hailing from Barry Island (of Gavin and Stacey fame), Williams studied in London and found herself in such esteemed company as the likes of Elizabeth Maconchy and Vaughan Williams – the latter with whom she was part of the close circle of friends to call him ‘Uncle Ralph’. Her Sea Sketches is full of vivid imagery with the five movement titles clearly setting the scene (1. High Winds, 2. Sailing Song etc.). In the third movement entitled ‘Channel Sirens’, you can hear distant fog horns bellowing throughout as if appearing and disappearing in a dense mist. There must have been a whiff of sea salt in the air as Grace’s close friend Benjamin Britten was working on his opera Peter Grimes at the time, giving us another evocative example of writing in his Four Sea Interludes.
To leave out the impressionist composers from this 'listicle' would have classical music lovers up in arms. A Rite of Spring-like riot would break out in the (as yet, non-existent) comment section calling for my public shaming and immediate resignation in the face of overwhelming evidence of incompetence. So, here it is.
Ravel wrote a set of five piano pieces called Miroirs (Mirrors) in dedication to his group of avant-garde artists who called themselves Les Apaches (The Hooligans) after an encounter with an overzealous newspaper seller. We turn our attention to number three in the suite called Une barque sur l'océan (A Boat on the Ocean), recently made popular by the award-winning film Call Me by Your Name. Ravel gives us swells of waves on the piano for us to bob upon in a much more idyllic manner compared to some of the other composers featured. The gentle falling notes at the beginning draw us into a frantic middle section – the quicker, hidden current – before being dropped off back in calmer waters.
John Cage wrote about the music of his colleague and dear friend Lou Harrison: “Listening to it we become ocean.” JLA takes this and proclaims his strong environmental conviction in the only note on the score by the composer, “Life on this earth first emerged from the sea. As the polar ice melts and sea level rises, we humans find ourselves facing the prospect that once again we may quite literally become ocean.”
You can hear Grace Williams' Sea Sketches at our Free Rushhour Concert on Thursday 17 May. Find our more here.
Find out more about Sam here.