Water, water, everywhere

With 22 March marking World Water Day, today’s blog surveys H2O’s musical portraits, starting in a vast expanse and proceeding to a vapid ending.

The world’s five oceans are daunting to contemplate – their strength, enormity, depth. I was only a youngster when Sir Francis Chichester became the first person to single-handedly sail around the world in his yacht Gypsy Moth IV in 1966-67. I remember trying to contemplate the sense of loneliness he must be experiencing as regular updates on his progress flowed into the news channels.

The ocean’s overawing nature is clearly appreciated in Ravel’s Une barque sur l’océan (A boat on the ocean) which started life as one of his five piano pieces, Miroirs, written in 1904-05. A year later, Ravel produced an orchestrated version of Une barque sur l’océan which, despite his undisputed skill as an orchestrator, wasn’t well received. Thoughts of producing an alternative orchestration some 20 years later were aborted, and the 1906 version wasn’t published until 1950. Here’s the opening of the work with woodwind instruments over the muted arpeggios of divided strings, suggesting the ocean’s initially tranquil presence.

Une barque sur l’océan (8.573545)


Quite where the five oceans transform into the seven seas, I’ve never really understood. Composers, however, have often clearly focused on the sea as a basis for their works. Think of Vaughan Williams’ A Sea Symphony, Elgar’s Sea Pictures, Debussy’s La mer, Sibelius’ The Oceanides, or The Sea by Frank Bridge. But I’ve chosen a piece by one of Bridge’s students, Benjamin Britten, for my seascape: one of the 4 Sea Interludes from his opera Peter Grimes. These are titled Dawn, Sunday Morning, Moonlight and Storm, the movement we can listen to here.

Storm (8.578269-70)


We move inland now to lakes. I’ve chosen an orchestral work by the Russian nationalist composer Anatol Liadov (1855-1914) to represent this category. As a composer, Liadov was less hard-working than he might have been. It was his tendency to procrastinate that was to give Stravinsky his chance to work with Diaghalev, when the score for the ballet The Firebird that had been commissioned from Liadov wasn’t finished in time. When asked by Diaghalev how the music was progressing, Liadov famously replied that things were going very well, and that he had just bought some ruled paper. Liadov completed The Enchanted Lake in 1909. It’s a colourful, fantasy miniature for orchestra that bathes the listener in the subtleties of a moonlit stillness. Although, as with many of Liadov’s works, it’s based on a fairy tale, this seven-minute piece doesn’t so much tell a story as depict a state of being; enjoy it as you stretch out in your mind’s eye on the lake’s grassy bank.

The Enchanted Lake (8.556606)


Musical lakes aren’t always havens of bliss, however, and certainly not the one in Dvořák’s The Water Goblin. It opens with the malicious spirit singing of his coming marriage the next day. His bride-to-be has been irresistibly drawn to the goblin in the water, despite her mother’s warnings. As she approaches, the ground sinks beneath her feet and she is drawn down into the water, where she becomes the goblin’s wife. In the depths of the lake she grows sad, since it is in this gloomy place that the goblin holds the souls of those who have drowned. She sings a song to her child expressing regret for what has happened. When the goblin hears her complaint, he angrily threatens to change her into a fish, but is persuaded to allow her to return home for one day, although he keeps her child as a hostage against her return. The girl and her mother are overjoyed to be reunited, but when the goblin angrily knocks at the door, he is turned away by the girl’s mother. At this he raises a great storm, during which something is hurled against the door of the house: it is the body of the child, its head cut from the body.

No prizes for guessing from which point in the story our music extract is taken!

The Water Goblin (8.550896)


There are plenty of musical rivers in the catalogue, from Wagner’s depiction of the River Rhein at the opening of his music drama tetralogy The Ring of the Nibelung, to Smetana’s representation of the River Moldau, from its trickling source to its full majestic flow. But I’ve chosen a more contemporary characterisation, that of Snake River which rises in America’s Yellowstone Park before eventually reaching Jackson Lake in Grand Teton National Park. The American composer is Jennifer Higdon, whose music captures the river’s rapid flow and unpredictability, ever changing and powerful, yet at times gentle. It’s taken from her orchestral suite All Things Majestic, written in 2011 in response to a commission from Grand Teton Music Festival.

Snake River (8.559823)


Downsizing to a stream, we come to down the stream merrily by Eric Moe, who provides an epigraph for his short piece for percussion in a line set by Franz Schubert in his song cycle Die schöne Müllerin:

Ich hört ein Bächlein rauschen
(I hear a little brook rushing along…)

The composer adds: “Neither Row, row, row your boat nor the Schubert song is quoted musically, but this short piece seems to bubble along as they do.”

down the stream merrily (8.559612)


Moving to airborne water compounds, I’ve chosen Liszt’s Nuages gris, or Gray Clouds, a piece for piano that he wrote in 1881. Although the form is quite simple, its unusual dissonances and harmonies make it sound far ahead of its time, almost a presentimental mix of both impressionism and the atonal world of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern.
Nuages gris (8.553852)


I have just three more musical stages of water’s diminishing transformations to explore: rain showers; water droplets; and steam. I’ve often wondered if Debussy was sitting in a tin-roofed potting shed during a rainstorm when he got the inspiration for the last of his three Estampes for piano solo titled Jardins sous la pluie (Gardens in the Rain). The notes fairly rattle away practically from start to finish, as can be heard on this recording.


Jardins sous la pluie (CDX-5063)


Sibelius captured a gentler down-flow in his miniature for pizzicato cello and violin, Water Drops. And it really is a miniature, dripping down at under a minute in our recording.
Water Drops (ODE850-2)


Finally, before our water subject evaporates completely, we have steam. I thought the best way to illustrate this would be through the power of steam trains, and I’ve chosen a piece by the American composer Michael Daugherty by way of illustration. He wrote his 3-movement orchestral work Deus ex Machina in 2007, and cast it as a piano concerto in which each movement is a musical response to the world of trains. The last movement is titled Night Steam. It evokes O. Winston Link’s historic photographs of steam locomotives that were gradually being replaced in America post-1950. In the composer’s own words:

“Like O. Winston Link’s photographs, I have composed music that sonically captures the final journeys of trains from a bygone era. In Night Steam, we hear majestic fire-eating steam locomotives rumble and whistle their way through the small towns and lonely back roads of the Shenandoah Valley into extinction.”

Night Steam (8.559635)


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