Same starting point – Debussy’s La mer – but a different journey, and one that is undertaken on the water. Though it is impossible to imagine a greater evocation of the power and implacablity of the sea than captured by Debussy, numerous other composers have been drawn to the subject, and particularly British composers; perhaps our position as an island nation has proved a major inspiration. One of Elgar’s loveliest songs, ‘Sea Slumber-Song’ (the first of the Sea Pictures), pre-dates the Debussy by six years but it too captures the swell of the sea and its surging power to great effect. Written five years after the Debussy (and in the same place, Eastbourne and of a similar length), Frank Bridge’s The Sea is a four-movement suite that offers a series of snapshots under different conditions (by moonlight, in a storm and and so on). It’s a magnificent creation and has received some very fine recordings.
As Debussy was writing La mer, Frederick Delius was at work on Sea Drift, a setting of Walt Whitman for baritone, chorus and orchestra that operates on a number of different planes simultaneously: a boy observes a pair of sea birds nesting until one day the she-bird flies off leaving her mate pining alone. But it awakens a new emotional experience in the boy, a powerful part of his maturing life. Also written at the same time as La mer, and also setting words by Whitman, is Ralph Vaughan Williams’s A Sea Symphony, his first symphony and one of the most assured symphonic debuts in all music. The second movement, ‘On the beach at night alone’, is a study in atmosphere with a potent sense of space. Benjamin Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from his opera Peter Grimes is a modern classic and a concert-hall staple – it needs little advocacy from me as it’s a masterpiece and there are numerous superb recordings. A more seldom heard symphony to end: Sir Granville Bantock’s A Hebridean Symphony, premiered in 1916. The opening section (it’s couched in a single span) fuses a glance at ancient myth with a haunting portrayal of a seascape glimpsed through the mist until the sun bursts brightly on the scene: an impressive musical coup de théâtre.