Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, one of the planet’s greatest beauties, stretches for some 2,900 kilometres off the Queensland coast and provides the habitat for a cornucopia of corals, fish and sea mammals. Yet we read how swathes are being slowly decimated by climate change and pollution and, in this particular case, what the eye doesn’t usually see, the heart will certainly grieve for ever if the problem isn’t stemmed. This got me thinking that the undersea world is an unlikely source of inspiration for composers, since its tracts are largely silent domains, with much to entertain the eye, but comparatively little to charm the ear. Crustaceans and other sea creatures do occasionally feature, however, in discographies. While trawling the lists, I netted some interesting specimens. Snorkels on, please.
We start in South America where a young 18 year-old musician called Heitor Villa-Lobos in 1905 headed not for the sea, but for the richly dense musical undergrowth of Brazil and gathered a mass of traditional melodies reflecting native rhythms and genres. These collectibles eventually distilled into eleven small albums of piano music with the title Guia Prático (8.570008),and although the underlying pedagogical aim of his mission centred on children’s education, some of the pieces are too intricate for young hands. I bet many students, however, would love to get their fingers round this delightful one, titled Crab.
The whale is the undisputed king of the ocean, so it’s no surprise that the creature sometimes pops up for air in performances. Haydn featured the beast in a 2-minute slot in his oratorio The Creation (8.557380-81), but back in the 18th century he was doubtless unaware of the fascinating sound of whale calls that we can now enjoy, courtesy of modern technology. The American composer George Crumb heard such a recording of a humpback whale which inspired him in 1971 to write Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale) for Three Masked Players (8.559205), scored for flute, cello and piano (all amplified). Here’s a short extract from his 20-minute piece.
Moby-Dick was the whale that featured in Herman Melville’s 1851 novel of the same name, but that escapade was pre-dated quite considerably by the biblical story of Jonah and the Whale so, before we leave this particular creature, let’s hear Louis Armstrong relating the first part of the story in his version of Robert MacGimsey’s Jonah and the Whale (8.120815).
British composer Kit Turnbull may well be known to you as a co-writer of the score for Blackadder Back and Forth, a film offshoot of Rowan Atkinson’s BBC TV comedy series Blackadder. It’s a long way from those jaunty sounds to one of his Three Cautionary Tales, The Mermaid’s Pool (9.70122), written for clarinet quintet. The forlorn, modal quality of the music reminds us that mermaids have a darker side, as representing drowned women who have hypnotised passers-by with their singing, luring them into sharing their watery grave. The opening of the piece sets the tone.
Edward Elgar conducted the first performance of his Sea Pictures (8.557710) for contralto and orchestra in 1899. The young singer at that performance would go on to become a household name and a national treasure—Clara Butt. Elgar subsequently wrote to one friend that Butt had ‘dressed like a mermaid’, and to another that ‘She sang really well.’ The fourth song in the cycle is titled Where Corals Lie. Listen here to the opening stanza, with or without the mental image of the future Dame Clara Ellen Butt dressed as a mermaid:
The deeps have music soft and low
When winds awake the airy spry,
It lures me, lures me on to go
And see the land where corals lie.
We end today with a reference to one of the many composers who have been drawn to Hans Christian Andersen’s 1837 fairy tale of the mermaid who sacrifices herself out of unrequited love for a prince—The Little Mermaid. Alexander Zemlinsky completed his symphonic fantasy Die Seejungfrau (The Mermaid) (8.570240) in 1903 and the work is a good place to start if you are unfamiliar with his music. In truth, the piece is more a carefully-crafted traditional symphony than a descriptive symphonic poem, but here’s the opening of the second movement, which relates to the mermaid’s pact with a sea-witch who cuts out her tongue in return for human guise, following which she is received at the royal palace only to find that the prince is betrothed to another.
And finally, after those arresting sounds, it’s time for snorkels off and a restoring plate of Fish and Chips (8.572503) served up by Alan Bullard’s eccentrically titled music for recorder and strings.