Elgar: Sea Pictures


Edward Elgar’s (1857-1934) Sea Pictures was initially written in 1844 for piano and soprano. In 1898 the composer 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. However, the work has been criticized on a number of pretexts: the poems now seem rather dated; apart from the rather superficial link of the sea, there is no thematic interconnection between the poems, so that the cycle as a whole lacks a coherent structure; and Elgar's settings make little attempt at a grand portrayal of the sea as other composers have successfully attempted.

This criticism is unjust for several reasons. The songs are about a person’s relationship with the ocean, and possibly no other European nation had the deep dependency on the ocean than Britain. The seas were what propelled this island nation to conquer vast swaths of the planet, to establish intercontinental trading routes, and maintain military dominance over the Atlantic after the Spanish Armada. It’s no coincidence that after Britain squashed the Spanish naval fleet, the commemorative portrait of HRH Elizabeth I features her right hand resting solidly on a globe, with her palm over the New World, her index finger pointing at the Atlantic Ocean, and her thumb covering the Iberian peninsula. Elgar did not need to have some unifying theme more than the sea itself in this work. His home audience knew the sea well and did not require an academic discussion to remind them how important it was for their way of life. Pure enjoyment of poetry on the sea set to music sufficed.  

Sea Pictures is the only song cycle that 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 “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 that represented a mermaid!

The first poem 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. This area is a true British national treasure and is now controlled by the National Trust.

The second poem, 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, by Elizabeth Barett Browning, is 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 poem, by Richard Garnett, is titled Where Corals Lie. 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.”

Program Notes by Luke Smith