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The North Sea Ground

A Song for Baritone Voice and Piano by E. J. Moeran
by Ian Maxwell


This paper presents an account of the discovery and a significance analysis of a re-discovered song by the composer E.J. Moeran.  It is the first in a series of papers and articles on Moeran to be published during the year of the sixtieth anniversary of the composer’s death, which falls on 1 December 2010.


In his book on English Song composers, Parry to Finzi, Trevor Hold numbers fifty-two songs composed by E. J. Moeran during his mature period[1].  Hold’s definitive list excludes the Four Songs from ‘A Shropshire Lad’, written during the summer of 1916 which he categorises as juvenilia.  He suggests that Moeran was dissatisfied with these songs and provides as evidence for this the re-writing of the fourth song Far in a Western Brookland in 1925 – nine years after the song’s original composition[2].

    In defining that Moeran’s mature works date from 1920, Hold is establishing a somewhat arbitrary point before which any compositions are classed as juvenilia.  The only apparent support for this is the very small number of extant works that are known to have been composed earlier.  It seems to be a commonly held belief that these actually do represent the small volume of work Moeran composed up to the age of 25.  However, the evidence of Moeran’s works from 1920 onwards implies otherwise in that they indicate clearly that his compositional fluency was extensive.  Between 1920 and 1922, Moeran created a range of compositions for orchestra, chamber ensemble, piano and voice.  They all demonstrate that the composer had acquired significant compositional skills that can only have come from extensive practice and exercise.

    Is it possible then that there was a substantial body of composition that Moeran produced during at least the preceding ten and perhaps more years and that very little of this now exists?  The answer to this is, almost certainly, yes.  The survival of at least some manuscripts dating from before 1920, together with the evidence of the mention of performances of a number of other works that no longer appear to exist[3], certainly lends weight to this. Moreover, works that were apparently performed in a London Concert Hall could hardly be classed as juvenilia, regardless of what Moeran later did with them.

    It is also clear that some of these compositions were songs.  At the 434th Programme of the Oxford and Cambridge Musical Club[4] on 5 December 1918, Mr Walter T. Ivimey, accompanied by Lieut. E. J. Moeran, performed the songs Looking Back, A Cradle-Song and The North-West, Canada.  While these songs are listed as having been composed by Moeran, extensive searches have failed to find any other mention of them[5].

    Until now, it has been generally supposed that Moeran had little interest in music as a child and that his awakening as a musician began during the latter days he spent at preparatory school in Cromer.  His interest in composition is thought to have emerged during his senior years at Uppingham School.  This information originated in an essay written about Moeran by Peter Warlock in 1926[6] and is frequently referred to as axiomatic.  However, evidence that has recently emerged about Moeran’s childhood suggests that the Warlock account may not be entirely factual.  It is now thought that his first exposure to music and possibly composition took place much earlier.  Certainly, Moeran was aware of the processes of inventing music from an early age.  In a radio interview in 1947, he talked about inventing “great chords” on the piano as a child[7].  There is also evidence to suggest that Moeran’s mother had a musical education and that she passed this on to her son from an early age.

    However, if Moeran was active as a composer from earlier than thought hitherto and produced the piles of juvenile and adolescent compositions to be expected in such circumstances, it may be asked what has become of them?  The explanation for the paucity of extant pre-1920 works probably lies mainly in Moeran’s tendency to discard or destroy work with which he was dissatisfied.  The composer was prone to periods of intense self-criticism and these would sometimes prompt him to destroy summarily compositions or sketches.  There is evidence that testifies to this in his letters – particularly one case where he talks about putting manuscripts “on the fire”[8].  Additionally, Moeran’s forgetful nature and haphazard lifestyle may also have contributed substantially to the disappearance of manuscripts – at least one complete work is known to have been lost through his carelessness[9].  Once the character of the man has emerged from a study of his many letters and the testimonies of friends and acquaintances, one may easily imagine Moeran placing mounds of schoolboy manuscripts on the fire or consigning them to the dustbin.  The tragedy here is that the act of destruction was irrevocable and frequently prompted by a momentary decision.

    It does seem possible, therefore, that Trevor Hold may have been wrong both to dismiss the early Housman songs and to adhere to the notion that little of any value was composed earlier than 1920.  In the case of the Four Songs from ‘A Shropshire Lad’, Moeran would have been more likely to have destroyed the manuscripts if his dissatisfaction was as great as Hold implies.  The fact of the songs never having been published during the composer’s lifetime may well be due more to Moeran’s circumstances than to a sense of the songs not being up to standard.

    So it may be supposed that, however much music Moeran composed prior to 1920, it is certain that almost all of it was deliberately destroyed or was lost during the course of the composer’s increasingly peripatetic life.  Moeran spent extended periods of his adult life living out of a small suitcase, regularly moving from one boarding house to another.  Periodically, he would return to his parents’ home – or, indeed, go and stay for a while with a friend or acquaintance.  It is reasonable to suppose that manuscripts were left behind or simply mislaid and subsequently thrown away.

    The existing manuscripts from this period are few and so the discovery of another one both increases the likelihood that Moeran composed other works prior to 1920 and enables further study of his progression from a juvenile to a mature, adult composer.


Historical Context


By the beginning of the twentieth century, the countries of mainland Europe had been variously at war with each other for much of the preceding two hundred years.  However, the advance of technology was making both the construction and maintenance of the equipment of war increasingly economically crippling.  This tended to favour the larger powers, particularly those with the resources of an empire that were better able to afford such expense.  Smaller countries therefore looked to these major powers for alliances that might guarantee their security.  By 1910, two national groups, the Triple Alliance – based around Germany/Austria-Hungary/Italy and the Triple Entente – based around Great Britain/France/Russia, had emerged.  A complicated set of treaties and alliances bound together these major allies with a host of smaller countries, such as Serbia and Belgium, in a system that was intended to reduce the possibility of, or even prevent, further outbreaks of war.

    For most of the nineteenth century, following the final defeat of Napoleon in 1815, Britain had conducted itself in a state of political isolation from much of Europe, considering itself to have been above what it saw as the petty rivalries and animosities on the European mainland.  Great Britain was a world military and economic power – in fact the only real world power – and had spent much of the nineteenth century establishing a huge empire that provided it with a status above and beyond that of any other country.  No country would dare attack Britain and any colonial difficulties could easily be resolved by the use of the vast military resources at the country’s disposal.

    During the second half of the century, Germany had been regarded by the British people almost as a close relation.  Historically, the two countries had been tied – first by the Hanoverian succession and later by Queen Victoria’s marriage to Prince Albert.  German culture of all kinds was embraced by the British and the speaking of German was considered to be a necessary accomplishment for young ladies in society, alongside singing and playing the piano.

    However, on the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, the familial ties of the British Royal and German Imperial dynasties weakened and Germany increasingly came to be seen almost as a natural enemy.  There were a number of reasons for this but the principal one was the intense and growing naval and imperial rivalry between the two countries.  There was also a long-held and well-founded suspicion that Germany nursed an ambition to usurp Britain’s position as the world’s leading power.

    So Britain emerged from its century of isolation and embarked on a programme to modernise and extend further its immense military might.  This, in turn, prompted Germany to crank up its own naval building and an arms race developed.  Technology was pushed to its limits as each country built bigger, more powerful and faster battleships.  As the dominant maritime power, British naval strategy was to maintain a navy at least as big as the next two navies combined and huge sums were spent on the construction of ships in yards around the country[10].

    Meanwhile, the British public, increasingly educated and literate, read The Times and Punch magazine in which articles portraying Germany as a dangerous potential enemy were published.  During the months leading up to August 1914, stability in Europe became ever more compromised by belligerent posturing, particularly from Austria-Hungary.

    All these factors led to a growing belief in Britain that the country would shortly be involved in what was seen as an inevitable European War.  Amongst most people, there was an unshakeable confidence in Britain’s ability to wage and win such a war.  In fact, there was almost a longing for a war in which Britain’s total superiority would be established beyond any doubt.  Similarly, Germany            was spoiling for a fight for much the same reasons.

     On 4 August 1914, a British ultimatum to Germany expired without a reply and the country went to war, ostensibly in support of Belgian neutrality.  This ultimatum had resulted from a domino effect of treaty invocations that had been triggered during the preceding five weeks following the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914.  Public reaction to the declaration of war was extremely positive and the situation was popularly seen as an opportunity to teach the upstart Germans a short, sharp lesson that they would not easily forget.  It was not expected that the war would last very long – 'It will all be over by Christmas' was a common thought.

    Throughout the country, there was a surge of patriotic fervour.  Young men of fighting age enlisted; older men encouraged their sons to enlist.  The British Expeditionary Force of Regular Army troops was despatched to France and additional recruitment in the Territorial Army for home defence was necessary.  The opportunities to participate in the great adventure were legion and most people were eager to take them.  The future horrors of the trenches, poison gas, the Somme and Passchendaele were still unimagined.

    Moeran had entered the Royal College of Music in September 1912 and for the following two years had immersed himself in the rich musical life available in post-Edwardian London.  However, on 30 September 1914, he too enlisted in the Territorial Army – in the Sixth Battalion of the Norfolk regiment.  Moeran’s brother Graham joined the army as a Chaplain.  Their father, the Rev. J. W. W. Moeran, also participated in the patriotic zeal by publishing a book, Illustrations from the Great War, in which tracts from the Bible and extracts of devotional poetry and prose were linked with episodes from the war.

    The entire life of the country adjusted itself to war.  That Britain would be victorious was obvious.  That the war would be short and glorious, with the troops coming home as heroes, was equally plain.  However, by the spring of 1915, with German forces proving more difficult to defeat than had been generally assumed and with the seas around Britain heavily mined, it had become apparent that the fighting would be more protracted than the general public had been led to believe.


The Poem


The North Sea Ground is a poem by Cicely Fox Smith.  It was published in the 24 March 1915 edition of Punch Magazine (on page 230 of Volume 148) and included no attribution.  Cicely Fox Smith was known as a prolific writer of verse, especially poems with maritime matters as the subject.  She generally signed herself as 'C. Fox Smith' to disguise the fact that she was a woman.  The North Sea Ground was published later in a number of anthologies of sea-poems or Great War poems[11].

    Punch magazine was in the front line in what would now be called the hearts and minds aspect of the war.  As explained above, the attitude of the British public had started by being very favourable to the war but the government fully recognised that, as time went by and victory was not achieved, public support might fall away.  The Defence of the Realm Act had been passed by parliament a few days after the outbreak of war and provided the government with censorship powers over the press.  Although not part of the legislation, publishers of newspapers and periodicals were encouraged to display overt patriotism and to ridicule and caricature the enemy – particularly the German Kaiser – at every opportunity and Punch played a major part in the propaganda effort.

    The text of the The North Sea Ground refers to the use of North Sea coast fishing fleets – particularly the Grimsby fleet – as minesweepers and anti-submarine vessels during the early years of the war.  At the outbreak of the war, the Royal Navy had no warships dedicated to the clearing of mines.  Indeed, the concept of the minesweeper did not exist at that time.  It had been realised for some years that, in the event of war, minefields would be a real danger and a contingency programme to requisition or compulsorily purchase trawlers had already been established.  Although this was regarded as an interim measure until specialist vessels could be constructed and launched, up to three-quarters of the entire fishing fleet had been diverted to minesweeping or anti-submarine duties by the time the first dedicated minesweepers appeared in 1915.  Some of the trawlers were converted into armed patrol vessels and became part of the fleet of Q-Ships – decoys intended to lure German submarines into a deadly trap.  All the fishermen of military age were drafted into the Royal Navy Reserve.  This enabled the trawlers’ original crews to remain on board.  The captain was given the rank of Skipper Royal Navy Reserve.

    The mines had been laid by mooring them to the sea bed.  The strategy for clearing them was for two trawlers to steam in parallel with a strong line stretched between them deep enough to break the mooring lines of the mines.  The mines would then float to the surface where they would be exploded by gunfire.  Although the trawlers had much shallower draughts than the Royal Navy ships that were the target of the mines and could usually hope to steam right over them, at low tide there was much less clearance.

    The poem describes the duty felt by the fishermen and suggests the terrible dangers faced by the trawlers when carrying out their new tasks.  In fact, a large number of the boats became victims of the mines and submarines and many crew members lost their lives[12].  It is clear from the sense of the verse that there is a low expectation of survival.  Nevertheless, '...duty comes a-callin’…' and the fishermen put out in all weathers to ensure the safety of other vessels.


Oh, Grimsby is a pleasant town as any man may find,

An' Grimsby wives are thrifty wives, an' Grimsby girls are kind,

An' Grimsby lads were never yet the lads to lag behind

When there's men's work doin' on the North Sea ground.


An' it's "Wake up, Johnnie!", for the high tide's flowin',

An' off the misty waters a cold wind blowin';

Skipper's come aboard, an' it's time that we were goin',

An' there's fine fish waitin' on the North Sea ground.


Soles in the Silver Pit ... an' there we'll let 'em lie;

Cod on the Dogger ... oh we'll fetch 'em by-an'-by;

War on the water ... an' it's time to serve an' die,

For there's wild work doin' on the North Sea ground.


An' it's "Wake up, Johnnie!" they want you at the trawlin'

(With your long sea-boots and your tarry old tarpaulin);

All across the bitter seas duty comes a-callin'

In the Winter's weather off the North Sea ground.


[It's well we've learned to laugh at fear  the sea has taught us how;

It's well we've shaken hands with death – we'll not be strangers now,

With death in every climbin' wave before the trawler's bow,

An' the black spawn swimmin' on the North Sea ground.]


Good luck to all our fightin' ships that rule the English sea;

Good luck to our brave merchantmen wherever they may be;

The sea it is their highway, an' we've got to sweep it free

For the ships passin' over on the North Sea ground.


An' it's "Wake up, Johnnie!" for the sea wind's cryin';

"Time an' time to go where the herrin' gulls are flyin'";

An' down below the stormy seas the dead men lyin',

Oh, the dead lyin' quiet on the North Sea ground!


(Originally published in Punch Magazine, 24 March 1915)


Textual Analysis


The poem comprises seven stanzas formed as triple-rhyming quatrains with the hook phrase 'on the North Sea ground' ending each.  There is an additional hook line 'An’ it’s ''Wake up, Johnnie!'' ' beginning the second, fourth and seventh stanzas.  This enables those stanzas to be cast as a repeating chorus with stanzas one, three, five and six being cast as verses.  This rather unusual poetic form lends great internal strength that is entirely appropriate to the raw emotional power being conveyed by the text.

    However, the lack of a 'Wake up, Johnnie!' stanza between the fifth and sixth renders the poem structurally unsymmetrical.  Both of these stanzas contain the same metrical pattern as the first and third – thus, they are verses and neither may be considered to be a chorus.  In musical terms, the fifth stanza could be a middle-eight section, contrasting with both the verse and chorus settings.  From a literary perspective, this is the darkest part of the poem: ‘..the black spawn swimmin’..’ symbolises the mines that have been laid by the German U-boats.  The narrator has accepted death as the inevitable consequence of the necessary work that is to be done.

    Verse one introduces the town of Grimsby and the admirable characteristics of its inhabitants.  In describing the main protagonists – the trawler men of Grimsby – the poet employs the word "lads".  In using this word, Fox Smith conveys an image of eager young chaps, no longer boys but not yet men, nevertheless being called to do “men’s work”.  The effect suggested is perhaps similar to that evoked by the extensive use of the same word in almost all the poems of A. E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad.  This cycle had been published a couple of decades earlier and would certainly have been familiar to Fox Smith.

    In The North Sea Ground, Fox Smith is perhaps implying the same underlying theme of mortality as in A Shropshire Lad and connecting it with the very real danger that faces the trawler men.  Housman’s use of “lads” invokes both a nostalgic sense of rustic, innocent reliability and the imperative to live life as it comes because death may strike at any moment.  The poet of The North Sea Ground is using the word to generate a similar emotional response.  Essentially, these are everyday "chaps" – young, of course – and about to leave behind their ordinary lives but willing to do something quite extraordinary.

    In the first chorus, the generic fisher lad "Johnnie" is being called because the tide is high, there is a cold wind blowing and it's time to sail.  The second line mentions the “misty waters”, suggesting that they will be venturing into the unknown.  Reference is made to the "fine fish" that are "waitin' on the North Sea ground".  The phrase "North Sea ground" is a reference to the fishing grounds where the trawlers would normally expect to catch fish such as cod and sole.

    The first two lines of verse two present more detail about the fish that the trawlers would otherwise have been going out to catch – "Soles in the Silver Pit" and "Cod on the Dogger".  The Dogger Bank is, of course, well-known as a fishing area of the North Sea.  The Silver Pit is a trench off the mouth of the Humber, first located in 1837, that, due to a local thermal inversion, attracted sole to its depths in the winter and was thus an especially rich source for this fish.  However, there is no time to catch fish now, there is “War on the water” and other work must be done.

    The next chorus stanza again mentions the duty that is beckoning “Johnnie” in the worst of the winter weather.  This is where “duty comes a-callin’”.  The following stanza, the fifth, is the key to the message of the entire poem.  The fishermen, even during normal times, pursue a dangerous trade in hazardous conditions.  As a result, they have become used to the nearness of disaster and death.  The sea is a merciless companion that must always be respected and the trawler men have effectively come to an agreement that they accept whatever fate awaits them – “It’s well we’ve shaken hands with death..”.  But the war has brought perils more dreadful still – the “death in every climbin’ wave..” indicates the ever-present possibility that a German U-boat lies just beneath the surface and, most terrible of all, are the mines – “the black spawn swimmin’”.

    The sixth stanza sounds the patriotic note.  The British Royal and Merchant Navies were the most powerful fleets on the planet and this power effectively confers an absolute right to go where they wish – the sea is “the English sea”.  It is their highway to be kept free of the dangers from mines and submarines.

    Finally, the seventh stanza describes the ultimate end for many of the trawler men – “the dead lyin’ quiet on the North Sea ground”.




The publication of The North Sea Ground attracted the attention of a number of composers who produced settings.  In addition to the setting by Moeran, those that can be traced are by W. Crampton Gore and Maurice Frederick Bell.  Copies of the published settings by Gore and Bell are held by the British Library but appear to be no longer in print.

    W. Crampton Gore may have been the artist William Crampton Gore (1877-1946) although no information has been found to confirm this.  The British Library catalogue contains just one other musical work with W. Crampton Gore as composer.  The title of the work is Incidental Music for A Garden Pastoral, Herrick in Love.

    Maurice Frederick Bell (1862-1947) was a clergyman and is now almost unknown as a composer.  The British Library catalogue contains about a dozen of his works – mostly hymn tunes or other liturgical music.  Some of his tune harmonisations and translations were included in the first edition of The English Hymnal published in 1906.

    Moeran’s setting was not published and it remained in manuscript, forgotten about for nearly ninety years, until its rediscovery in the archives of the Oxford and Cambridge Musical Club.

    More recently, the Tyneside Folk Band The Keelers have set the same words and the song is included with other sea and mining songs as the title track of their 1998 CD On The North Sea Ground.  The tune of their setting, while in a folksong style, is original.  It does not incorporate noticeable influences from any of the settings by the three composers mentioned.


Discovery of the Manuscript


The manuscript of The North Sea Ground was discovered in a collection of loose songs, both manuscript and printed, that formed part of the library of the Oxford and Cambridge Musical Club.  Until the end of the twentieth century, the OCMC had storage facilities at the Senate House of the University of London.  In 2000, the University requested the OCMC to move the library as they required the space.  The former secretary of the OCMC, Mr Gordon Cumming, purchased the residue of the club library after it became apparent that, during the relocation, many items were being widely distributed and subsequently lost.

    Mr Cumming realised the importance of the Moeran manuscript and attempted to contact Moeran family members and 'The Moeran Society' to ascertain what they would like to see done with it.  Entirely by chance, Mr Cumming met Professor Brian Moeran, a distant cousin of the composer[13].  After some discussion as to what to do with the manuscript, they decided that it should be lodged with the Rare Books and Music Department of the British Library and that efforts would be made to have the song published and performed.  It was thought that it would not be appropriate to send the manuscript to join the principal Moeran archive that is held in the Lenton-Parr Library at the University of Melbourne.

    During the spring of 2008, I was in the process of creating a definitive catalogue of the works of Moeran as part of my doctoral research programme at the University of Durham.  In order to locate as many references to Moeran works as possible, I was making use of a number of Internet search-functions.  One of the search-term combinations used coupled Moeran’s name with the Bodleian Library in Oxford.  The results thus returned led directly to the Oxford and Cambridge Musical Club Archives located at the Bodleian Library and subsequently to Mr Cumming’s catalogue of the songs and chamber music that he had acquired from the OCMC music library.  Moeran’s manuscript of The North Sea Ground was included in the catalogue and I was eventually able to meet Mr Cumming in May 2008, view a copy of the manuscript, and place the composition of the work in the Moeran timeline.


The Manuscript


Moeran’s manuscript of The North Sea Ground is now located in the Rare Books and Music Department of the British Library.  It has the shelf reference MS Mus. 1220B and was lodged there on permanent loan in 2006 by Gordon Cumming.

    The manuscript is written in black ink on 12-stave B&H. Nr 31. C. paper of which there are four double-sheets.  It is a fair copy in the composer’s hand.  The front page has the title 'The North Sea Ground'Song for Baritone solo with pianoforte accompaniment, and the composer’s signature E. J. Moeran.  The inside cover is blank.  The song itself begins on page three – the front of the second double-sheet; it is dated April 4th, 1915.  The song is written out on the following seven pages.  The inside and outside back covers are blank and there is no additional information anywhere on the manuscript.  There are just three corrections on the manuscript and this suggests that it is probably a final copy from Moeran’s original sketches and notes.


The Oxford and Cambridge Musical Club


It is not known how the manuscript became part of the Oxford and Cambridge Musical Club library.  However, there is some circumstantial evidence that may be used for educated guesswork.  Although the library itself has been split up and widely distributed as described above, the membership records and Recital Programmes are included in the Archive of the Oxford and Cambridge Musical Club.  The Archive was deposited at the Bodleian Library in Oxford in 2002.

    An examination of these records reveals very interesting information.  Moeran had been a member of the Club since October 1912 and, according to the archived Recital Programmes, participated as performer on many occasions.

    The first of these was on 20 December 1912 at the 303rd Programme where Mr. E.J. Moeran was listed as 'Accompanist'.  The items that he accompanied were a group of songs sung by Mr. Geoffrey Garrod[14]:

Fussreise and Der Gärtner (Wolf)

Wir wandelten and War es dir? (Brahms)

Lachen und Weinen and Ungeduld (Schubert)

    Moeran’s next appearance was at the 313th Programme on 8 May 1913.  On this occasion, he again accompanied Mr Geoffrey Garrod in a number of songs. They performed:

When Laura Smiles (Philip Rosseter)

Go to Bed, Sweet Muse (Robert Jones)

Come Again (John Dowland)

Love Sounds th' Alarm from Acis and Galatea (Handel)

    Moeran also played Bach’s Fantasia in A minor as piano solo and, together with Mr. H.G. Marshall (violin) and Mr. R.A. Ramsay ('cello), performed Mozart’s Pianoforte Trio No. 2 in B flat.

    It may be gathered from the works performed by Moeran that his competency as a pianist at the time was very high.  In later life, Moeran regarded his piano-playing skills rather modestly, attributing his poor technique to a wrist operation in 1924[15].  Moeran’s limited pianistic ability during the 1940’s was also spoken of by his friend Lionel Hill in the book Lonely Waters[16].  This later decline may also have been due to lack of practice.  From the end of 1929 onwards, Moeran was increasingly itinerant.  Maintaining sufficient stability of location that would have enabled regular piano practice became more difficult for him.  Several of his later letters refer to his frustrations with his inability to gain access to a piano.

    The records show that Moeran performed several times at OCMC Programmes during the remainder of 1913 and early 1914: at the 315th Programme (5 June 1913), the 322nd Programme (9 October 1913), the 327th Programme (18 December 1913) and the 332nd Programme (26 February 1914).  There is then a gap in his participation until the 408th Programme on 2 August 1917, when Lieut. E.J.S. Moeran is recorded as having played the Sonate Fantastique for Pianoforte, Op.44 by Akimenko[17].

    Moeran abandoned his studies at the Royal College of Music and enlisted in the Royal Norfolk Regiment in September 1914.  However, it appears that his active service in France did not begin until 1916.  It is likely, certainly during 1915, that he was able to spend some time in London and at home.  Thus, his composing of The North Sea Ground and its location in the Library of the OCMC are consistent with his probable movements at the time.

    Over the next twelve years, Moeran maintained his membership of the Oxford and Cambridge Musical Club and contributed to the Recital Programmes on many further occasions both as composer and performer[18].




The most notable feature of Moeran’s setting of The North Sea Ground is the folksong style of his melody – characterised by the repeated quaver patterns and the step-wise melodic construction.  An extensive search of a number of folksong tune databases has not located any similar existing melody.  Thus, it may be supposed that the tune is Moeran’s invention:

Ex. 1 The North Sea Ground

NSG Ex1.eps

    Moeran had been profoundly affected by folk-song from his youth.  Although his most assiduous folksong collecting didn’t begin until after the war, he said that his interest in and study of folksong was first stimulated during his pre-war years at the Royal College of Music[19].  Having heard English-folksong-influenced music at concerts in London, in particular, Vaughan Williams’ Norfolk Rhapsody, Moeran had investigated the area local to his parent’s home in Bacton-on-Sea and discovered that there was still a tradition of folksong singing.  It is known that he had collected a number of songs by the summer of 1915.

    As has been said, the melody of The North Sea Ground is almost certainly original.  Although it is in a folksong style, there are certain elements that distinguish it.  The modulation sequence of the verse – C major -> E minor -> G major -> C major (effectively modulating to the dominant via the relative minor of the dominant) – is especially characteristic of Victorian salon songs[20].  Moeran’s use of this sequence suggests that he was familiar with this kind of harmony and this is supported by evidence that indicates that his mother may have been an accomplished pianist and singer.  It is known that Moeran was educated at home by his mother and a governess – up to the age of 10 – and it is also known that Moeran’s mother had herself been educated to the age of 18 at an academy for young ladies.

    It is, therefore, not unreasonable to suppose that some of the first musical influences experienced by the young Moeran would have been hearing his mother singing and accompanying herself on the piano in some of the huge number of songs composed during the late Victorian era.

    Moeran adopted a verse-refrain form for his setting.  However, this posed the problem of how to accommodate satisfactorily the seven stanzas of the poem.  The setting of any poem that has both an odd number of stanzas and an underlying verse-refrain form necessitates a compromise in the structural symmetry of the music.  As suggested earlier, a common technique is to compose a contrasting central or middle eight section for the setting of the most appropriate inner verse.

    Moeran’s rather clumsy solution was to omit the fifth stanza.  The problem is that this verse is the key to the emotional content of the poem and, as shown above, contains the most powerful symbolic element ‘..the black spawn swimmin’..’.  Moeran’s attempt to balance the musical requirements has led to a severe textual weakening.  Moreover, the lack of a direct statement of “laughing at fear” and “shaking hands with death”, that emphasises the courage of the trawler men, means that the line 'it’s time to serve an’ die' in the third stanza (second set verse) is the only reference to the deadly risk they are experiencing.

    This compositional decision reflects Moeran’s literary naivety and inexperience as a song writer at the time.  Although, in a musical sense, the word setting is quite appropriate, he has not appreciated the necessity to incorporate the meaning of the entire poem into his song.

    The setting is strophic with only small variations in the rhythmic structure of the vocal lines for each verse.  These are necessary due to the variation in the numbers of syllables in comparative lines of the verses.  The exception is the final line of the third chorus, where the tune in the solo line is replaced by repeated C’s.  This emphasises the sombre mood – 'the dead lyin’ quiet on the North Sea ground'.  The previous tune is not lost – it is heard this time in the piano accompaniment.

    Variation across the verses is provided by the piano accompaniment, which, for the first six bars of each verse, is different.  Contrastingly, the accompaniment for the seventh and eighth bars is almost exactly the same.  A similar division is seen in the accompaniment for each of the three choruses.  The first four bars of each chorus have a different accompaniment each time.  It is not immediately apparent why Moeran did this, other than as a means of providing a variation of texture.

    The dynamic rhythm across the three verse-chorus pairs also provides a degree of contrast.  The first and third verses are marked mf and the middle verse is marked p.  However, it is hard to see why Moeran consistently marked the bars setting ‘Wake Up, Johnnie!’ with a p dynamic.  Possibly he is attempting to convey irony in that perhaps the poet really doesn’t want to wake Johnnie and so calls sotto voce:

Ex. 2 The North Sea Ground

NSG Ex2.eps

    These issues aside, Moeran shows a degree of understanding of the sense of the poem.  He generally allows the vocal line to stand out, although the piano accompaniment, especially in the third verse, ‘Good luck to all our fightin’ ships’, is inclined to be a bit fussy.  It may reasonably be presumed that Moeran composed the piano accompaniment at a technical level reflecting his own capabilities.  As mentioned above, during the years in which this song was composed, Moeran was a pianist of a very high standard – when he enrolled at the RCM, his principal study was the piano.  Thus, the piano accompaniment is sometimes perhaps more virtuosic than it needs to be for the relatively simple vocal line:

Ex. 3 The North Sea Ground

NSG Ex3.eps

Comparison with other works


There are very few other compositions by Moeran from the period that have survived and so there is not much material that can be used to identify an early evolution of style.  In fact, only the piano works Dance (1913) and Fields at Harvest (1912 or 1913) and the group of songs Four Songs from ‘A Shropshire Lad’ (1916) date from before the end of the First World War.  The North Sea Ground may therefore be considered to be Moeran’s Opus 3 in a chronological catalogue of his extant works.

    The fingerprints that may identify a composer’s unique style are not always apparent in early or immature works and The North Sea Ground includes none of the harmonic and rhythmic sophistication that characterises Moeran’s post-1918 music.  Even the two early piano works referred to above, both of which date from before The North Sea Ground, present a level of musical imagination that encompasses a wider range of harmonic vocabulary and rhythmic structure.

    However, a close examination does reveal the use of features that recur throughout Moeran’s music.  In the piano accompaniment, use is made of broken chord forms that lighten the texture without compromising the harmonic rhythm – see Ex. 3.  This feature is also seen in Fields at Harvest, extensively in Dance and in the second of the Four Songs, When I Came Last to Ludlow:

Ex. 4 When I came last to Ludlow

LudlowSong Ex1.eps

    At points where an emphasis is required, Moeran uses a rhythmic device in which the third of a set of triplet quavers is tied to the following quaver or crotchet note, achieving a syncopated effect.  This is sometimes paralleled in both hands of the piano part for additional emphasis.  In the song, Moeran uses this device to accompany his setting of the line 'Cod on the Dogger oh we’ll fetch ‘em by-an-by':

Ex. 5 The North Sea Ground

NSG Ex4.eps

    Another feature that may be observed in both The North Sea Ground and the other works composed about the same time is the use of a very wide note-range on the piano.  While the vocal lines are confined principally to the range middle C to the octave above, the piano accompaniment covers a range of more than six octaves.  Moeran is making use of all the available sound textures that the piano can deliver.  Both the piano pieces and the Four Songs, with the exception of When I Came Last to Ludlow, also make use of this wide range.


Performance and Publication


A performing edition has been created using the score-writing software system Finale 2009.  The edition is generally true to the composer’s intentions as represented by his manuscript.  A number of corrections to the text have been made such that it follows the version of the poem as originally published in Punch magazine.  This has necessitated some minor alterations in the score.  Additionally, some modifications have been made to clarify the notation for performance.  There are also some places where the manuscript is not clear.  In these cases, a rule of consistency has been applied as the three verse-refrain pairings are quite similar.

    As of January 2010, the song has not been performed in public.  It received a private performance at the 1958th concert of the Oxford and Cambridge Musical Club on 31 March 2007, in the Housman Room of University College, London.  On that occasion, the performers were Carl Murray (baritone) and Donald Ray (piano).

    A professional recording and performance by the baritone Marcus Farnsworth, accompanied by John Talbot, is planned for May 2010.

[1] Parry to Finzi: Twenty English Song-Composers Trevor Hold (The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 2002), p373

[2] ibid. p375

[3] The Musical Times edition of 1 June 1919 mentions a performance of a new Violin Sonata by Moeran at the Wigmore Hall on 10 May 1919

[4] The archives of the Oxford and Cambridge Musical Club are now held by the Bodleian Library at Oxford University. Amongst other documents, the archive includes a list of the concert programmes run by the Club fortnightly from 1900 to 1929

[5] It is possible to identify the probable sources of the texts of the songs – Lookin’ Back and The North-West, Canada are both poems from the set Songs of the Glens of Antrim by Moira O’Neill, published in collection form around 1909; A Cradle-Song is probably the poem by Padraic Colum O, men from the fields. This is a Christmas verse and the setting and performance would be appropriate for a concert in December.

[6] E.J. Moeran – Miniature Essay Peter Warlock (Chester, London, 1926)

[7] “I found that scales and exercises, only playing one note and not playing chords, was rather dull, and I used to love to get to the piano and invent, as I thought, great chords with three or four notes in both hands, and I used to extemporise these things by the hour. I really thought I was making great discoveries, which I was not of course. But then of course I had the inkling that I wanted to put these things down onto paper.” – from a transcript of an interview of EJ Moeran by Eamonn Andrews for RTE, recorded and broadcast in 1947; - accessed on 14 January 2010

[8] “I have been getting out the MS of another string Trio I wrote some time ago, but I came to the conclusion it is quite unsuitable for public performance & so I put it on the fire, together with a very long-winded pianoforte trio I wrote about the same period.” – Letter from Moeran to Elizabeth Wieniawska, Lingwood Lodge, dated 11 November 1932

[9] According to Peter Warlock, Moeran had been discovered lying drunk in a gutter in Brussels and the police officer that found him failed to notice the manuscript of Whythorne’s Shadow that lay near him:

“..his last composition...was unfortunately not picked up by the kindly Brussels gendarme who found its composer in a state of beatific coma in the gutter some years ago; and nothing more has been heard of it since that occasion” - accessed on 14 January 2010.

How much credibility may be placed on this incident is open to question but it serves as an example. Moeran’s lifestyle was such that keeping track of possessions – even those as precious as music manuscripts – sometimes became difficult.

[10] This race saw its inevitable and terrible apotheosis at the Battle of Jutland on 31 May-1 June 1916 when nearly 250 warships engaged at one of the biggest naval battles ever fought.

[11] Notably Songs and Shanties: 1914-1916 ed. Cicely Fox Smith (Elkin Matthews, London, 1919)

[12] The historian Alec Gill, in his book Hull’s Fishing Heritage, suggests that during the course of the war as many as 600 trawlers were lost to enemy action and several hundred crew members died.

[13] Professor Brian Moeran is the great-grandson of the composer’s great-uncle Edward Busteed Moeran

[14] Geoffrey Garrod had been Moeran’s proposer for membership of the OCMC. The date of proposing was 14 September 1912.  F.B. Smith seconded the membership on 23 September 1912 and Moeran was elected to membership on 7 October 1912

[15] “.. since the operation on my wrist in 1924 my piano technique has been greatly limited.” – Letter from Moeran to Peers Coetmore, Cheltenham, dated 3 March 1949

[16] “Jack was an indifferent pianist, certainly at the time I knew him…” – Lionel Hill in Lonely Waters - the diary of a friendship with E J Moeran (Thames Publishing, 1985), p 21.

[17] Fedir Stepanovych Akimenko (1876-1945) – Ukrainian composer and pianist.  He composed many works for piano.  The Sonate Fantastique was published in 1910.

[18] The accounts records of the OCMC showed that Moeran continued as a member until 1930, at which point his membership was “Erased for non-payment”!

[19] Folksongs and some Traditional Singers in East Anglia – article by Moeran in The Countrygoer No.7, Autumn 1946.

[20] While a detailed exposition of the harmonic content of Victorian salon songs is beyond the scope of this paper, it may be noted that the song If I built a world for you from the stage musical Sergeant Brue by Liza Lehmann (1862-1918) exhibits considerable harmonic and structural similarity to The North Sea Ground.