The Sea, The Sea


With two thirds of the planet covered by water, is it any surprise that the churning mightiness of the seas and oceans has influenced artists, writers and musicians so profoundly?…

Homer acknowledged that there was ‘…nothing so dire as the sea’  and, more recently, the great Philip Roth intoned on the ‘…advancing green Atlantic, roiling unstopably toward him like the obstinate fact of the future…’   But as well as a cruel sea, there is a sublime and mutable sea, a restorative sea and, for some, a curative sea.  A year ago we dipped our toes into the wonderous soundworld of Debussy’s masterwork La Mer, a briny heaven for most music lovers (and advertising executives).  Today we wade in further, up to our knees, and then downward, to the deeps……

A few miles from where I live in South London lies Streatham, in the Borough of Lambeth.  The sinewy, nondescript High Street has the usual London jumble of thrift-shops, halal grocers and pharmacies, but in 1883 when Arnold Bax first saw the light of day in Pendennis Road, it was a well-to-do neighbourhood of upper middle-class professionals.  The Quaker Bax family were of independent means, and this allowed their musically talented son to develop his pianistic skills, first at home and, from the age of 17, at the Royal College of Music.  He was still a teenager when, a couple of years later, he discovered the mysterious and magical landscape of Ireland and, more importantly, the poetry of one of Ireland’s greatest scribes, William Butler Yeats.  A turning point had been reached, and his love affair with Erin had begun.  Following a trip to Russia and a youthful fling, he married a childhood sweetheart and settled in the South County Dublin suburb of Rathgar, just a few miles (what, again?) from my just-married then-home in Blackrock.  By this time (1911), and in the years leading to the Great War, Bax was composing prolifically in every form.  His seven symphonies, spanning the inter-war years are starting to achieve recognition after years of neglect but, personally, I find them too uneven in inspiration.  However, the Tone Poems are a different matter and, while reflecting the influence of Sibelius (and what better influence to reflect?), they have a passionate flavour that is uniquely individual.  The best of them is probably the popular Tintagel (1917) but, a year earlier appeared the Debussy-like seascape of The Garden of Fand which, to my ears, has an equal claim to greatness.  Here, the first part, on a rather bland background – the better to appreciate the amazing sound-picture, describing a small ship on a calm sea, thrown by a wave onto Fand’s magical island.

Benjamin Britten’s teacher Frank Bridge was born a few years earlier than Bax, into the bracing air of Brighton where, at the School of Music, he was tutored by both Bax and Bantock.  By the turn of the century he was a notable violinist who later became an exceptional violist, playing professionally in several quartets to make ends meet.  He also began composing in earnest.  The tang of the sea can be heard in a number of his works, most notably the orchestral suite The Sea (1911).  Today, on a smaller scale, the delightful A Sea Idyll (1905) for solo piano, with the marvellous backdrop of Girl Fishing by John Singer Sargent.

JMW Turner’s striking oil painting Snow Storm – Steam Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth  provides an apposite image to couple with the third movement (of five) Une Barque Sur L’Ocean (A Boat On The Ocean) from Miroirs by Maurice Ravel.  Conceived as a suite for solo piano in 1904/5, the composer later orchestrated this movement and the succeeding Alborada del gracioso (1907).  The piano version can only be attempted by a player with complete mastery of the keyboard; the orchestral version too, needs a band (and conductor) that can embrace comfortably the shockingly iridescent freedom of this score, and if possible they should be French.  The next best, as here, is the Montreal Symphony Orchestra conducted by the Swiss, Charles Dutoit.

Taken out of context, the musings of Igor Stravinsky in 1936 on what music actually is, have always struck me as wide of the mark: ‘…music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all…’.  By the early 1960’s he appeared to be retreating slightly with ‘…music expresses itself’, and, by the 1980’s he had become even more inscrutable with ‘Composers combine notes, that’s all’, a remark that appeared posthumously in Robert Craft’s book Dialogues.  I wonder if the old wizard had ever lent an ear to the incidental music to Shakespeare’s The Tempest by the great Finn Jean Sibelius?  I was going to save the Prelude to this suite for a later piece on ‘onomatopoeic music’, but the depiction of a storm at sea was far too lifelike, too intense, to overlook here.  For reasons I cannot fathom, this amazing music is heard very rarely in the concert hall, bracketed as it is with the last symphony (7th) and Tapiola, three masterpieces marking the last serious utterances from this genius before the ‘Silence of Jarvenpaa’, the last 30-odd years of his life during which time he produced and destroyed an eighth symphony and some odds and ends; another of music’s many ‘what if’ moments.

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About Author Profile: Mahlerman

Mahlerman's life was shaped by his single mother, who never let complete ignorance of a subject get in the way of having strong opinions about it. Facing retirement after a life in what used to be called 'trade', and having a character that consists mainly of defects, he spends his moments of idleness trying to correct them, one by one.

One thought on “The Sea, The Sea

  1. Brit
    August 5, 2013 at 21:41

    That is a very perverse line from Stravinksy. But it’s a defensible position nonetheless I suppose, in the sense that music expresses something that cannot be described in any other medium, especially in words. And so you could argue that tone poems – which attempt to describe things in music which CAN be described in words or pictures – actually miss the point of music.

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