Felix Mendelssohn (1809-47) – Overture “Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage”
Down through the ages, the significance of a “calm sea” has changed dramatically. Early on, when ships were small, it was a laborious inconvenience – you shrugged, unshipped the oars, and bent your backs. Once ships had engines, it simply minimised the risk of martini spillages. In between times, though, becalmed seafarers could do nothing except watch, wait, and wonder whether they would live or die.
The Mendelssohn who wrote Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage (1828) was a landlubber, as yet lacking the first-hand nautical experience that informed the Hebrides Overture (1830). Instead, he responded to Goethe’s pair of pithy, potent poems, previously the subject of Beethoven’s op. 112 cantata.
The ground-plan’s surface simplicity – slow introduction for “calm sea”, sonata-form allegro vivace for “prosperous voyage” – camouflages considerable craftsmanship and innovative ingenuity. Both sections use the same materials, in a manner anticipating Liszt’s “thematic transformation” technique. Again, whereas the allegro paid stylistic homage to Mendelssohn’s aforementioned illustrious predecessor, the introduction’s extraordinary string-writing sowed a seed that would flourish in the work of a subsequent champion of Mendelssohn – Gustav Mahler.
Nowadays, Mendelssohn’s “calm sea” seems short on bone-chilling, “death-like stillness”. Well, so it might seem now, but in 1832 it didn’t. In any case, Mendelssohn was taking a more inclusive view, putting us right inside the scene by indistinctly interweaving objective imagery and emotional responses – creeping anxiety in the groping lines, and fervid prayer in the emergent, but hesitant lyricism.
Salvation is heralded by a fluting bird (thankfully, one less unmusical than the seagull!). The wind breezes in, waves begin to break – anxiety becomes activity, and prayer a song of thanksgiving. Goethe’s joyful exclamation, “Schon seh’ ich das Land!” is reflected in a festive flourish of appropriately archaic trumpets and drums – which suddenly subsides, leaving a “calm” conclusion that sounds suspiciously like a sigh of relief.
© Paul Serotsky, 2009
Here are the original Goethe poems and some accredited translations. Unfortunately, compared to the former, the latter tend to be a bit on the wishy-washy side.
Tiefe Stille herrscht im Wasser,
Ohne Regung ruht das Meer,
Und bekümmert sieht der Schiffer
Glatte Fläche rings umher.
Keine Luft von Keiner Seite!
In der ungeheuren Weite
Reget keine Welle sich.
Die Nebel zerreißen,
Der Himmel ist helle,
Und Aeolus löset
Das ängstliche Band.
Es säuseln die Winde,
Es rührt sich der Schiffer.
Es teilt sich die Welle,
Es naht sich die Ferne,
Schon seh' ich das Land!
Trans. Emily Ezust:
Deep stillness reigns on the water;
motionless, the sea rests,
and the sailor gazes about with alarm
at the smooth flatness all around.
No breeze from any side!
It is fearfully, deathly still!
In the enormous expanse
not one wave stirs.
Trans. Karel Vereycken:
The mist is pulled aside,
The sky lights up,
And Aeolus undoes
The ties of fear.
There, the winds rustle,
There, the sailor moves on.
The waves are breaking.
The distant becomes nearby,
Already, I see the land!
Trans. Daniel Platt:
Deepest silence rules the waters,
Not a motion stirs the sea,
And the sailor views the glassy
Surface so uneasily.
Not a breeze from any quarter,
Dreadful silence, still as death.
In the vast, appalling distance
Not a ripple shows itself.
Trans. John Bernhoff:
Silence broodeth o'er the Ocean,
wind and billow seem to sleep,
sad, the sailor, nigh despairing,
scans the awful, glassy deep.
Not a breath of air is stirring,
death-like stillness all around,
sea and sky, one vast horizon,
o'er the deep no wave, no sound!
© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street,
for use apply. Details here
Copyright in these notes is retained by the author without whose prior written permission they may not be used, reproduced, or kept in any form of data storage system. Permission for use will generally be granted on application, free of charge subject to the conditions that (a) the author is duly credited, and (b) a donation is made to a charity of the author's choice.