Sea Pictures, Opus 37

Sir Edward Elgar

Elgar’s Sea Pictures was written in 1844 for piano and soprano, and in 1898 he was commissioned by the Norwich Festival to “write a piece for a vocal soloist.” Following the success of his Enigma Variations, he crafted Sea Pictures for their request, based on five poems by different authors, each offering a different response to the ocean: its beauty, its temptations, its symbolism, and its dangers.

It is the only song cycle which Elgar wrote for voice and orchestra. For the vocal role, he had in mind Dame Clara Ellen Butt, noted for her wide tessitura and booming low notes. Sir Thomas Beecham once noted that “On a clear day you could have heard her across the English Channel!” She sang at the premiere in 1899 at the Norwich Festival, conducted by Elgar, in a dress which represented a mermaid!

The first is titled Sea Slumber Song, by Roden Noel, which presents a beautiful setting in a rocking style lullaby (waves softly breaking on the shore) combining with distant waves to come, indicated by soft timpani strokes. The text reads:

“Sea birds are asleep

The world forgets to weep

Sea murmurs her soft slumber song

On the shadowy sand

Of this elfin land…”

The poem references the Kynance Cove in Cornwall, which has been described as “one of the most beautiful stretches of coastline in the South West,” surrounded by dark red and green rock. It is now controlled by the National Trust.

The second In Haven (Capri) was written by Elgar’s wife, Alice. Capri is referenced by a siciliano rhythm. “The voice sings of the transcendence of love over blind elemental forces.”

The text reads:

“Closely let me hold thy hand

Storms are sweeping sea and land

Love alone will stand…”

The third poem is by Elizabeth Barett Browning, titled Sabbath Morning at Sea.Elgar changes to a stronger mood herein in which he unleashes his religious fervor and belief in God. A largamente opening leaves sea imagery to shift into a serious mood of devotion. As the verses unfold, the orchestral part surges to strong climaxes and strong emotional expressions as the power of religious conviction is expanded and embraced.

Part of the text reads:

“He shall assist me to look higher

He shall assist me to look higher

Where keep the saints, with harp and song

An endless Sabbath morning….”

The fourth is titled Where Corals Lie by Richard Garnett. The composer shifts to a graceful setting with winds and delicate accompaniment. Notice the harp and string chords, which evoke the shimmering, underwater world. The beauty of this scene, “the land where corals lie,” is in the possible drowning and danger of the deep water on the ocean floor.

In part, the text reads:

“The deeps have music soft and low

When winds awake the airy

It lures me, lures me on to go

And see the land where corals lie”

The fifth poem, The Swimmer by Adam Lindsay Gordon, reflects a turbulent sea in which a swimmer recalls happy times with a lost lover, and he imagines being drowned in the thrusting waves. Musical references are made by quotes from the preceding settings, and the profusion of climaxes mark the emotional desperation of the swimmer and power of the sea. At the close, the orchestra recalls the first theme in a gloriously dramatic conclusion.

Part of the text reads:

“With short, sharp violent lights made vivid

To southward far as the sight can roam

Only the swirl of the surges livid

The seas that climb and the surfs that comb

I would ride as never a man has ridden

In your sleepy, swirling surges hidden

To gulfs forbidden

Where no light wearies and no love wanes.”

© Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2017

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