- 19 July, 2013
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Are you a fan of rivers, or a lover of the sea? Those living in land-locked countries probably tend to the former, while people of island nations inevitably get pulled to the latter, with its vast expanse, unfathomable depth and liquidity of mood.
Maybe Britain unconsciously reveals this attribute in its world-famous BBC Promenade Concerts, specifically in this year’s opening and closing nights, the latter traditionally whipping up the audience into a frenzy of singing for Rule, Britannia, Britannia Rule the Waves and accelerated clapping during the traditional Sailor’s Hornpipe.
The latter has been replaced this year, however, by Sir Granville Bantock’s Sea Reivers. (Just to clarify: a reiver is a Scottish plunderer). Bantock is said to have fallen under the influence of Hebridean folk music and Richard Wagner while writing this piece, a fusion that should pique your curiosity enough to tune into the performance on 7 September.
The opening night of the Proms took place last Friday and featured Vaughan Williams’s A Sea Symphony (Naxos 8.557059), his first symphonic work for voices and orchestra that sets words by the American poet Walt Whitman; it gives the solo and chorus singers little respite in the ebb and flow of its hour-long performance. Occupying a smaller dimension in the composer’s output is On Wenlock Edge for tenor, piano and string quartet (Naxos 8.557114), in which the last movement, Clun, describes not ebb and flow, but a continuous progression of the River of Life, reflected in its progressive tonality, ending in a different key from that in which it starts.
Britten’s Sea Interludes (Naxos 8.557196) from his opera Peter Grimes also featured in the opening night of this year’s Proms. Having lived in Aldeburgh, the fishing town on the UK’s Suffolk coast where Britten himself resided while composing the opera, my time there left me with an indelible impression of how strongly the composer wove the community atmosphere into his first opera: overlooking daily the menacing North Sea that claims several lives in the opera; sitting nightly in the local pub with the crackle of weather warnings competing with the whistle of the wind outside; and watching repeatedly the fisherman who, like Grimes, still haul their boats up the shingle beach. No wonder that a recent performance of the complete opera, performed outdoors on that very beach proved such an overwhelming experience for even the most hardened reviewers:
“Opera-house productions of Peter Grimes will come and go, but for me – and probably for everyone else at this extraordinary spectacle – none will hold a candle to what we witnessed under a black sky, in a biting wind, by the water’s edge.” (Michael Church, The Independent)
Britten’s teacher was Frank Bridge, who was duly honoured in Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge (Naxos 8.557200). His stylistic development was considerable, eventually reaching an intense chromaticism akin to Bartók and Berg. Prior to that, works from his late romantic style include The Sea (Naxos 8.557167), a four-movement suite that, like Britten’s interludes, titles the last two movements Moonlight and Storm.
As with Vaughan Williams’ epic Sea Symphony, Delius’s Sea Drift (Naxos Classical Archives 9.80097) also sets extracts from Walt Whitman’s and was written shortly before his A Mass of Life (Naxos 8.572861-62), a period in which Delius showed himself at the height of his powers.
The list of British composers’ contributions to this category of maritime music continues with examples such as Elgar’s orchestral song cycle Sea Pictures (Naxos 8.557710) and Stanford’s Songs of the Fleet. These large-scale works, however, generally focus more on the sea’s enormity than on its role as the setting for people’s everyday lives, either at its edge or on its surface.
Part of that grass-roots community atmosphere, however, is to be found in a new Naxos release this month from the American choral group, Blossom Street. Down by the Sea (Naxos 8.573069) is a collection of British folk songs containing a number of new works by James MacMillan, Judith Bingham and Hilary Campbell, confirming the continued pull of this particular folklore element in music.
Let’s finish on an unlikely, biblical setting for this week’s subject: not the story of Jonah and the Whale, but dramatic verses from Psalm 107. Purcell wrote They That Go Down to the Sea in Ships to celebrate King James II’s survival of a shipwreck in 1685; it’s particularly noted for the basso profundo D setting of the matching word as the sailors are cast down into the ‘deep’.
Three centuries on, the best-known setting of the text is the anthem They That Go Down to the Sea in Ships (Naxos 8.554823) by Herbert Sumsion, the long-serving organist and choirmaster of Gloucester Cathedral in the UK, who knew Elgar well and was considered a good friend by Vaughan Williams, which brings us full circle and seems to be a good place to drop anchor.