Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage
Two poems by Goethe, the rst titled Calm at Sea and the second titled Prosperous Voyage, were the source for three 19th century settings: Beethoven’s Opus 112,
(1814-1815) Schubert’s song “Calm Sea” (1815) and Mendelssohn’s Overture Opus 27, (1828, revised in 1834.) Originally, Mendelssohn had intended that A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, and Hebrides be published as a single set with a single opus number, but that later changed.
The first poem reads:
Silence, deep rules over the waters
Calmly slumbering lies the main
While sailor views with trouble
Nought but one vast level plain
Not a zephyr is in motion!
Silence fearful as the grave!
In the mighty waste of ocean
Sunk to rest is every wave. (1795)
The second poem reads:
The mist is fast clearing
And radiant is heaven
While Aeolus loosens
Our anguish-fraught bond.
The zephyrs are sighing Alert is the sailor.
Quick! Nimbly be plying!
The distance approaches
I see land beyond! (1795)
Mendelssohn wrote the following notes:
“The introduction I planned in this way: That a pitch gently sustained by the strings for a long while hovers here and there and trembles, barely audible, so that in the slowest Adagio, now the basses, now the violins, rest on the same pitch for several bars. The whole stirs sluggishly from the passage with heavy tedium. Finally it comes to a halt with thick chords and the Prosperous Voyage sets out. Now all the wind instruments, the timpani, oboes and utes begin and play merrily to the end.”
In place of vocal settings, chosen by Schubert and Beethoven, Mendelssohn sets the poems into an orchestral seascape. Although he had only seen the sea one time at this point in his life, he wrote a stunning and convincing representation of the danger and terror of being becalmed and the celebration of nally seeing land and the renewal of wind.
The music begins piano and adagio: a sustained chord sounds from strings and winds, with a tiny downward movement in the basses for two measures before violins and violas pick up the theme: hymn-like, the instruments move together with small colorations from the ute. The atmosphere is lonely, frightening, and deadly calm. Sailors faced a certain death if things did not change. There is no panic, only resignation.
Hope does emerge when a birdcall emerges from the ute; a climbing gesture leads into a general swell of a sustained fortissimo chord. At this point, we launch into the “prosperous” section marked molto allegro e vivace. Excitement grows, trumpet fanfares announce the salvation and the orchestra races headlong into an unending celebration. Embedded into this section is a small hymn of thanksgiving, momentarily stopping the euphoria. Joy and relief re-enter into a lyrical conclusion, with the bird singing small interjections in a zestful renewal of life and a second chance for the living of it. The Overture concludes with a peaceful chord: and all is well.
© Marianne Williams Tobias, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2015