Spend a couple of weeks near a large body of water and you’ll likely witness the seductive shimmer of water on a calm sunny day transform into a roiling, heaving monster in a matter of minutes. Anyone whose ankles have ever been suddenly lassoed by an undertow knows that water is a treacherous vacation partner.
The lure, lore and loss that are integral to our relationship with big lakes and oceans were irresistible subjects for symphonic tone poets at the height of this form’s popularity in the early 20th century.
Composers liked to spend time at the beach as much as the rest of us and, like painters, couldn’t help translating their impressions into art. My favourite depiction of the sea is a dark one, the set of orchestral interludes from Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes.
Claude Debussy’s La Mer is probably the most popular watery tone poem for orchestra. In song, it must be Edward Elgar’s 1899 five-poem cycle, Sea Pictures. Another favourite, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ 1909 A Sea Symphony, mixes voices and orchestra.
Deserving of a spot on this list of great works is The Sea, a four-movement symphonic tone poem by Frank Bridge, completed in July, 1911 in the Sussex resort town of Eastbourne — the same spot where Debussy put the finishing touches on La Mer six years earlier.
(It’s hard to imagine Eastbourne, choked with cars and baggy-clothed, sugar-high tourists in the summer months, as a restful spot from which to contemplate the water. But it must’ve been a lot more sedate when people arrived at the Victorian getaway by train, and got around town on foot. The chalk cliffs that rise up on one side are particularly picturesque.)
Frank Bridge (1879-1941) is best remembered here as Britten’s teacher, but he was a fine violist and a respected composer especially of chamber music in his day. As was the case with so many artists of his time, the First World War was so unsettling that it radically changes his aesthetic.
Prewar Bridge is an unabashed late-Romantic. Postwar, he strays off into darker, starker tonal explorations. Although the composer had an American champion who paid his way to the United States in the 1920s, his name never really established itself outside the U.K.
The Sea had its premiere 100 years ago on Sept. 25, at the Proms, conducted by Proms founder, Sir Henry Wood. It was to become his most popular symphonic composition. Bridge himself conducted the Cleveland Orchestra, the Detroit Symphony and the Boston Symphony premieres after the war.
The suite’s four movements are: Seascape (Allegro ben moderato); Sea-Foam (Allegro vivo); Moonlight (Adagio non troppo); and Storm (Allegro energico – Allegro moderato e largamente).
Bridge, who grew up in Brighton, not too far away along the same shore, wrote these programme notes for the premiere:
Seascape paints the sea on a summer morning. From high drifts is seen an expanse of waters lying in the sunlight. Warm breezes play over the surface. Sea-Foam froths among the low-lying rocks and pools along the shore, playfully not stormy. Moonlight paints a calm sea at night. The first moonbeams are struggling to pierce through dark clouds, which eventually pass over, leaving the sea shimmering in full moonlight. Finally, a raging Storm. Wind, rain and tempestuous seas, with the lulling of the storm an allusion to the first number [movement] is heard and which may be regarded as a sea-lover’s dedication to the sea.
There is a magnificent recording of the piece by late conductor (and champion of British music) Richard Hickox and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, reissued this summer in a Chandos Collector’s Edition box set of six CDs containing all of Bridge’s orchestral music, much of it in short forms.
For all the details, as well as audio samples, click here (The Sea is on disc 2).
Here are the first two movements of the Hickox recording, followed by Bridge conducting the full suite in a 1923 recording with the London Symphony Orchestra:
To appreciate the change in Bridge’s aesthetic, here’s a much later orchestral work, this one a concerto, from 1931: Phantasm for Piano and Orchestra. The soloist is Kathryn Stott. The Royal Philharmonic is led by Vernon Handley. Like Bridge’s chamber-music Phantasms, the movements move in one, unbroken flow. (In the Hickox box, this piece is on disc 3, with Howard Shelley as the soloist):