On 24th October, Bachtrack holds its sixth At Home Concert Club event, focusing on the Bergen Philharmonic and National Opera’s concert performance of Britten’s singular Peter Grimes. In this instalment of the At Home Guide, we look at 6 major works that find inspiration in the sea.

6. Beethoven’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage

With its unknowable expanses and humanity-eclipsing power, nothing evoked the feeling of the sublime for the Romantics as much as the sea. So when the forefather of the movement in Germany, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, turned his pen to the ocean in the poems Tiefe Stille herrscht im Wasser (“A deep calm reigns over the water”) and Die Nebel zerreissen (“The fog breaks up”), those who wanted to elicit that same feeling in music took notice.

Beethoven’s short 1815 cantata Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt (Calm sea and prosperous voyage) combines material from both of Goethe’s poems to create a pictures of a becalmed ocean vista and ship being propelled on its journey by a new wind. Yet despite the Goethe inspiration, the first half of the piece is less Sturm und Drang, more soothe and balm, with the opening choral passages having a comforting, hymnal quality. But the sense of security is misleading. In Beethoven’s time, a still sea would have been caused for alarm: with no wind to push the ship forward, sailors risked being trapped indeterminately in the same position. In Meeresstille, the stillness of the sea is enacted in the choral writing, with very slow chordal movement. Meanwhile, the choir gives voice to the maddening stasis, marvelling at the “Deathly, terrible stillness!” But as the piece bleeds into glückliche Fahrt, there is cause for hope: bright, ascending figures in the strings signal a new optimism, while the flute that weaves throughout brings to mind the flapping of sails. The ship is on the move, and when sailor spots the shore, the choir repeats the words “das Land!”

Watch the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic and choir perform the work

5. Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, movements 1 and 4


Rimsky-Korsakov was more acquainted with the reality of the sea than most composers, having sailed the Mediterranean and Atlantic as an officer in the Imperial Russian Navy. Many point to this autobiographical detail when discussing why he chose to bookend Scheherazade, an orchestral suite based on the One Thousand and One Nights, with two episodes depicting the sea. The first movement, “The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship”, deals with Sinbad the Sailor and his adventures. The grand, careering melodies in the strings carry an Eastern tint – an example of the Orientalism prevalent in much Russian art of the time – suggesting the growing swell of the waves. There’s not much forlorn desolation or overpowering sublime here, though: the serene coda suggests that this voyage is a good one. When the main theme returns in the fourth movement, however, it signals a less happy turn. In the scheme of the piece, Sinbad has returned from his travels to the festival in Baghdad, only to set out to sea once again and come into difficulty. When the theme returns, broad and brazen, it is said to represent his wrecked vessel being dashed amidst the waves.

Watch the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra perform the work

4. Mendelssohn’s The Hebrides Overture

Stirring, swelling movements in the strings float into the sonic picture. A blustering low end of cellos and basses follows, suggesting hidden depths just beneath the surface. The melodic theme is developed, and the orchestra is roused into a storm, with thundering timpani and blaring brass. This is the windswept world evoked by Felix Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture. It’s sometimes said that the work was inspired by the composer’s visit to the Scottish island of Staffa, with its unearthly basalt formations that result in the natural phenomenon of Fingal’s Cave. The story goes that the composer began jotting down the themes right after visiting the lonely island, but he actually began writing the music the day before he went. Whatever the exact provenance of the piece, we know that it was directly inspired by the 20-year-old composer’s seabourne travels around the Western Isles of Scotland – part of a grander tour of Europe that would go on to inspire other major works. Mendelssohn originally meant for the piece to be named The Lonely Isle Overture, but it was an 1834 publisher who popularised the “Fingal’s Cave” subtitle. Even now, the piece feels suffused with the wild atmosphere of the Hebridean coast. Mendelssohn’s note after having first noted down the theme for the Overture reveals the extent to which place and sound are wedded together in the composition: “In order to make you understand how extraordinarily the Hebrides affected me, the following came into my mind there.”

Watch the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra perform the work

3. Debussy’s La Mer

Composed between 1903 and 1905, Debussy stipulated that La Mer be categorised as “three symphonic sketches” rather than a conventional symphony, and this speaks to the boundary-pushing and changeable nature of the piece. It moves busily from key to key, with unfamiliar tonalities inspired by Far Eastern music. From the woozy chromaticism of the opening movement, culminating in a grand emotive swell, to the dissonance of the final movement which powerfully suggests the careering movement of the waves, this depiction of the ocean delights in colour and suggestion. This is helped along by Debussy’s unusual instrumental choices – he employs two harps and an expanded percussion battery to allow for a broader palette. There are many antecedents to this piece. As a boy, Debussy’s parents wanted him to be in the navy. Visits to the sea near Eastbourne in the UK and Cannes and Pourville-sur-Mer in France were also important. But so too were the mysterious seascapes of Turner and the famous Japanese woodprints of crashing waves. Debussy’s painterly approach to orchestral colour in La Mer makes it a vivid and involving depiction of an endlessly fascinating phenomenon. As the composer himself wrote: “My old friend, the sea; it is always endless and beautiful. It is really the thing in nature which best puts you in your place.”

Watch the Gürzenich Orchestra perform the work

2. Ravel’s “Une barque sur l'océan”


In both its solo piano and orchestral guises, a sense of fluidity and ceaseless motion in Ravel’s Une barque sur l'océan is strongly palpable. The work was originally written as part of a five-movement suite for solo piano named Miroirs between 1904 and 1905. Each part of the suite was dedicated to a member of the Apaches – a society of artists that Ravel was involved with – and Une barque was dedicated to the painter Paul Sordes. Mining the same rich seam of Impressionistic harmonic painting as Debussy’s piece, its harmonies shift in eddying waves, with sustained pedals and dramatically contrasting dynamics suggesting the sinuous movement of the water. In the piano version, placid phrases in the right hand repeat over shimmering arpeggios in the left, looking forward to some Minimalist writing of the latter 20th century. As the piece progresses, one can envision the right-hand melody as the titular boat, bobbing along on the waves of the left hand (this effect is accentuated by the flexible approach to rhythm that Ravel stipulates). When Ravel orchestrated the piece in 1906, he had the woodwinds take melodic themes, with a weighty low end brought to life by glowering bassoon and ominous tuba. While he was writing Miroirs, the composer took a two-month yacht cruise with some friends, and it’s possible that the experience found its way into the work, Ravel writing of the journey, “What music there is in all of this! I mean to make good use of it.”

Watch the Gürzenich Orchestra perform the orchestral version of the work

1. Britten’s Peter Grimes

When Britten’s renowned work premiered in 1945, it changed the face of British opera and found a much more popular audience than could previously have been anticipated. Perhaps that’s due to the universality of its themes: dealing with the intrigue and gossip of a Suffolk fishing village, the opera pitches a controversial outsider against a close-minded, tight-knit community which depends for its livelihood on the sea. Inspired by an episode in George Crabbe’s 1810 set of poems The Borough, the sea is a constant throughout the opera, being the lifeblood of Grimes’ village. This is reflected in the orchestral interludes that Britten laces throughout the work, often performed together as a standalone piece entitled Four Sea Interludes (Watch the Gürzenich Orchestra perform the work). Such is the vividness of the interludes’ depiction of the sea and coastal land that they’ve actually become more popular than the opera itself. In “Dawn”, melodies in the strings and woodwinds depict sea birds wheeling in the sky, with glistening waves brought to life by arpeggios in the harp. The poignant string themes of “Moonlight” relate the gentle surges of a placid sea, while in “Storm”, the ambience is shattered by menacing timpani. In the opera, this section comes in the first act, right after Grimes asks “What harbour shelters peace?” Add hectic, discordant strings to the mix, and you have an overpowering sonic stew. While the themes presented in Peter Grimes the opera are germane to communities anywhere, the interludes feel inextricably linked to the coast. 

The sixth online Concert Club on Peter Grimes begins at 19:30 UK time on 24th October. See the details and join the event. If you're on Twitter, use #concertclub6 to join the conversation.