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Elgar (1857-1934) - Sea Pictures

Hovering on the threshold of the Twentieth Century, the Sea Pictures were premiered in October 1899 by the legendary Clara Butt. Elgar's mastery of the Oratorio did not extend into the relatively intimate form of song. The fifty or so he wrote for voice and piano generally resulted from something more mundane than artistic imperative: it was, at the time, the “done thing”. And it was a “nice little earner”. Nevertheless, we can expect, and indeed do find, that this peerless oratorio composer brought to his songs the same sensitivity to textual implications and that, while his piano accompaniments were at best workmanlike, his use of orchestral resources in the Sea Pictures is well up with his considerable best. 

Even in 1899, the sea still largely represented the “Great Unknown”, navigable only in frail ships. Elgar's chosen texts often relate to the dichotomy of fear and fascination. Sometimes, when the singer represents humanity, as observer or participant, the orchestra will reflect the dispassionate deep, neither friend nor foe but something of both, almost synonymous with the “Hand of God”. It should go without saying that the following are my personal impressions only - yours may be very different! 

The five songs fall into a pattern: while the first apparently takes the sea's “viewpoint”, the second and fourth, and third and fifth form two pairs of opposing human sentiments. 

1. Sea Slumber Song: The “Sea-Mother” lulls her fractious “child” to sleep, to an accompaniment kept appropriately light, gently rocking save for the second and last verses where deep, throbbing waves are suggested. 

2. In Haven: To a feathery accompaniment, the voice sings of the transcendence of Love over blind elemental forces, Elgar's wife's tiny poem hinting that “together, we can face anything”. Elgar's articulation of the asymmetrical verse endings  is miraculous. 

3. Sabbath Morning at Sea: At the cycle's centre, we confront the Grand Mystery. Aboard a lonely vessel, the voice submissively contemplates first the contrast of untroubled sky and turbulent surface, then God, who created both Sea and Man. Elgar provides a suitably solemn treatment, with sombre treading and aspiring “nobilmente”. 

4. Where Corals Lie: The singer is seduced away from mortal love by the pervasive lure of the sea (the “land where corals lie” is, of course, beneath the waves). The orchestra reflects the emotional undercurrents by veering between detached accompaniment and more entwined counterpoint. 

5. The Swimmer: A lurid picture of the damage the savage sea does to men is juxtaposed with recollection of a past when the sea was a friendlier companion. The singer seems to conclude that Man has lost God's love, and reacts with a foolhardy challenge, obliquely similar to Waldemar's in Schoenberg's contemporaneous Gurrelieder, perhaps a startling sentiment for a traditionalist? Here Elgar unleashes his orchestra, even hurling in a tamtam (a rare gesture from him) at the crux of the final climax.

© Paul Serotsky
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