Monday, 9 October 2017

Thomas Dunhill: Sea-Music, Monthly Musical Record July 2 1917 Part 2

Continuing his exploration of sea-music, Dunhill approaches it from a largely British point of view. He discusses operas, a song cycle, a well-loved song and one of the greatest ‘ocean-inspired’ works of all time, Frank Bridge’s Suite: The Sea. The reader notes Dunhill’s impatience with ‘the sensuous vapourings of those modernists who see life through shadowy veils’ alluding, I think to Debussy and possibly Cyril Scott. The article concludes with some more patriotic musings.

Thomas Dunhill: Sea-Music, Monthly Musical Record July 2 1917
Ethel Smyth [1] also is a composer who has found in similar [nautical] subjects considerable stimulus. Her opera ‘The Wreckers’, [2] is ruggedly conceived and full of sea music, which is sometimes relentlessly faithful to Nature. There is little tenderness here, and the sea is, with her, a blind force, which is more powerful and more dominant than human life.
Elgar’s contralto songs, called ‘Sea Pictures’, [3] are also notable and beautiful, though, like the Mendelssohn works already alluded to, they are more about the sea than of it. We may find, however, in the slow heaving of the waters in the ‘Sea Slumber Song’ (as in one of the famous ‘Enigma’ variations) a pictorial representation of a sea-mood which few musicians have realized so expressively or so poetically.
Of the younger British composers who have been inspired by the sea, we must give pride of place to Vaughan Williams and Frank Bridge. The ‘Sea Symphony’ [4] of the former, and the Suite: The Sea [5] by the latter, are most memorable achievements: and it is significant that this last-named work is amongst the compositions chosen for publication by the Carnegie Trust. [6]. It is to be hoped that when the score and the parts of this fine work are available we may have frequent opportunities of hearing how a very modern British musician deals with the many aspects of this glorious subject.

On a smaller scale, but notable for real beauty and inspiration, the song ‘Sea Fever’, by John Ireland, [7] deserves more than mere mention. This has achieved remarkable success, owing mainly to its sincerity, and never fails to impress all who hear it by its faithful expression of the ‘call of the sea.’
Sea-music, to impress us at all, must at least be healthy. There is no room here for the sensuous vapourings of those modernists who see life through shadowy veils, or shut themselves in scented rooms to write, giving forth decadent, half smothered mutterings which cannot be understood by normal people. [8]
We want to smell the salt air, and to share, in music, the greatest heritage of our race. We must call for songs of men who guard our shores, and of the men, who born with a thirst for wandering, are reckless in their mood and restless in their sea-fever. We must learn with these to:
‘Know the merry world is round
And we may sail for evermore.’ [9]
The qualities which have made Britain great in other things must make here great in music, and there is surely a clear hope that the sea will, in the future as in the past, be a prominent factor in that national artistic expression which makes for a distinct and independent not in her musical voice.
Thomas Dunhill Monthly Musical Record July 2 1917

[1] Dame Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) was a British composer who was a contemporary of Elgar, Stanford and Parry.  She is best recalled for her opera The Wreckers, which deals with the Cornish community and ‘salvage rights.’ It was one of the most important operas of the age, which both looked forward to Britten’s Peter Grimes and back to Richard Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman. The overture to The Wreckers gives a good idea of Smyth’s musical craft. In 1916 Smyth completed the comedy opera The Boatswain’s Mate.
[2] The Wreckers was in three acts, with the libretto by Harry Brewster. It was first performed Leipzig on 11 November 1906, with the London premiere on 29 June 1909.
[3] Edward Elgar completed his Sea Pictures, op.37 in 1894. It a setting of five songs for contralto and orchestra.
[4] The ‘Sea’ Symphony is the first of Ralph Vaughan Williams symphonies. It is a setting of texts culled from the American poet Walt Whitman’s collection of poems Leaves of Grass. The Sea Symphony was completed in 1909 and was first performed the following year. The music portrays an optimistic world view, buttressed by ‘human and scientific’ achievements and a sense of adventure. It was a mood that would be destroyed with hostilities in 1914.
[5] Frank Bridge’s superb Suite: The Sea was composed between 1910-11, and was first performed on 24 September 1912 during a Queen’s Hall Promenade concert. The conductor was Sir Henry Wood. This tone-poem had four movements, each carrying a title: 1. Seascape, 2. Sea Foam, 3. Moonlight and 4. Storm.  Bridge’s Suite: The Sea is not an English response to Debussy’s La Mer. It could be argued that the music is an evocation of the sea and an impressionistic one at that. But if both works are played back to back the difference becomes clear. Bridge uses and develop themes: Debussy is more driven by motifs.
[6] ‘The Carnegie Collection of British Music at King's College London consists of some 60 musical scores which are held by the Library on permanent loan by the Carnegie United Kingdom Trust. The collection was formed as a result of a scheme for the publication of musical compositions inaugurated by the Trust in 1917. The object of the scheme was "to encourage British Composers in the practice of their art". This took the form of an annual competition whereby composers of British parentage and nationality were invited to submit their original compositions which had never before been published. Each year the Trustees would choose between one and six works which they felt constituted "the most valuable contributions to the art of music"’. King’s College London Website.
[7] John Ireland’s song ‘Sea Fever’ was written in 1913. It is a setting of a poem by John Masefield which had been published in his collection Saltiwater Ballads. Ireland’s song is probably the best-known example of English song, as well as being one of his most popular works. Only his 'Holy Boy' has more recordings in the current CD catalogues.
[8] Dunhill is not explicit about which ‘sea-pieces’ produced by modernists he is alluding to. However, it is more than likely he is referring to Claude Debussy’s La Mer which was first heard in London on 1 February1908.
[9] From the poem The Voyage by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. 


Graham said...

Dunhill's remarks about Impressionist composers reminded me of something that I had read in an old book (Bernard Shore's "Sixteen Symphonies" , 1950) that I had picked up recently, in discussing Holst's "The Planets", he made this comment about the Romantics when writing about the use of rhythm in 'Mars'.

"Romance is fain to escape into a world that the world's not. It dreams of indulgent passions and impractical wanderings, and prefers to shut its ears to sounds that compel obedience of the body in disregard of the soul's longings ... The rude facts of existence and social responsibilities were blotted out by clouds of hallucinatory beauty."

Now I begin to have some idea where it came from.

John France said...

Thanks for that!

Graham said...

I'd recommend trying to track down a copy Bernard Shore's book, the final section of the book is the authors opinions on Elgar's 2nd Symphony, Vaughn William's 2nd Symphony, Holst's Planets Suite, Bax's 3rd Symphony and Walton's 1st Symphony. They make for some interesting reading as the short segment I quoted on 'Mars' shows.