Elgar (1857-1934) - Sea Pictures
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.
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!
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
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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
29, Carr Street,
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