The Sea Program Notes

Benjamin Britten / November 22, 1913 – December 4, 1976
Four Sea Interludes
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Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes tells the gripping tale of a proud self-sufficient fisherman on the rugged East Suffolk Coast of England during the 18th Century. When Grimes tragically loses a young apprentice to an accident at sea, the townsfolk hold him responsible even though a formal inquest has held him blameless. When a second apprentice dies, the townsfolk decide to take justice into their own hands. Before they can find him, however, Grimes has taken his boat out to sea, never to be seen again.

In Peter Grimes, the sea is a metaphor for life; and the friction between Grimes and the townsfolk represents the eternal battle between the rights of the individual against the demands and sanctions of the individual’s community.

The orchestra and Britten’s instrumental music tell Grimes’s story as vividly as do the singers. Between each scene, Britten composed brilliant linking orchestral interludes that not only fill the dark space on stage, but also advance the story, recapping the drama that just occurred and then foreshadowing the action to come. Every measure of these interludes no matter how beautiful contains a grim sense of foreboding.

However, do not mistake Britten’s music for tone painting. His purpose was not simply to describe the physical setting for his story, but to express the depths of the human emotions aroused by this conflict.

Britten assembled four of his orchestral episodes in tonight’s standalone concert piece, Four Sea Interludes. The first is Dawn; followed by Sunday Morning and the sound of church bells; Moonlight, which is hardly restful; and finally Storm, which captures the essence of this tragedy. For a brief moment, sunlight seems to part the clouds only to be mercilessly battered by the storm’s final onslaught.

Claude Debussy / August 22, 1862 – March 25, 1918
La Mer
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Frequently called the “Father of Modern Music,” Claude Debussy uprooted Western tradition at the end of the 19th Century and produced in a unique style one of the most striking and original bodies of work ever created by a single composer. He was a musical revolutionary who refused to be bound by the conventional 18th and 19th Century musical rhetoric.

Debussy believed that the symphony as a form was dead, saying, “It seems to me that the proof of the futility of the symphony has been established since Beethoven. Schumann and Mendelssohn did no more than respectfully repeat the same forms, but with less power.” In fact, Debussy was not all that fond of Beethoven, accusing him of “tricking his audience with unexpected shifts of rhythm and tonality, and of battering his listeners with self-referential themes and motifs.” He abhorred Richard Wagner’s bombast. About Wagner’s fabled Teutonic operatic Ring Cycle, Debussy said, “Can you imagine spreading one drama over four evenings? My God, how unbearable these people in skins and helmets are by the fourth night!” Wagner saw his own music as a glorious sunrise on a new era, but Debussy saw Wagner’s music as a receding sunset on a burned-out age.

Using Eastern well as Western sonorities, Debussy wrote music that is unpretentious, luminescent, and refined. He hints, he does not declare; he suggests, he does not depict. Color, mood, and atmosphere take precedence over line and structure. He writes of the mysteries and vaporous romances of nature, not as the eye mirrors them, but as nature’s wonders are mysteriously transmitted to our emotions. As one observer said, “Debussy was the poet of mists and fountains, clouds and rain, of dusk and glints of sunlight through the leaves. He was moonstruck and seastruck, a lost soul under a vast sky illuminated by distant stars. His music begins where poets run out of words, where painters run out of paint.”

Thus, although he vehemently rejected the characterization of his music as impressionistic, he became known — understandably — as an Impressionist composer.

Debussy became enchanted by the many faces of the sea while spending time as a boy on both the South Coast of France and Normandy, where he experienced the fearsome power of an Atlantic Storm. Years later, he wrote that the “sea is endless and beautiful, the aspect of nature that puts you in your place. I love the sea and have listened to it passionately. He who feels what he sees will find nothing more beautiful than the book of Nature.”

La Mer is Debussy’s rich tone painting of his memories of the sea. It derives its essence from kaleidoscopic tone color, cross rhythms, and chords and melodies, which dissolve rather than resolve in the conventional symphonic manner. It is an exercise in sheer sonority that does not progress towards a prescribed tonal goal. Time in Debussy’s musical world is not linear, it is existential. He said, “There is no theory. You merely have to listen. Pleasure is the law.” So, disengage your usual expectations and do as he says: just absorb his shimmering, surging, rolling, comforting, glittering, inviting, and mesmerizing poetry.

La Mer has three sections. First, we hear From Dawn to Noon on the Sea. Next is Play of the Waves; and the final is Dialogue of the Wind and Sea. This is all you need to know to savor this wonderful piece, but if you wish more preparation, you might look at Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa, which Debussy chose to adorn the score’s title page, or at J. M. W. Turner’s Sunset. Both are available on YouTube. (What isn’t?)

Edward Elgar / June 2, 1857 – February 23, 1934
Enigma Variations
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As a young lad, Edward Elgar had a dream that someday he might become a world famous composer, so famous, as he told a friend, that a person all the way across the England Channel might be able to contact him simply by writing “Elgar, England” on a postcard, and he would be so well known that the postal service would know to whom and where to deliver it.

Because Elgar’s father was aware of the daily pecuniary indignities of being a composer, and because he wanted better for his son, he sent Edward off to London at the age of 15 to become a lawyer. Happily for us, Edward disliked the law and returned home after one year, determined to pursue his musical dreams.

His musical break came when he was hired to be the music director of a small orchestra. But, the job was quite unusual. The doctors in the local mental health hospital, the “lunatic asylum” as it was called, believed that music was helpful in treating people suffering from mental illness, so the doctor had assembled a small orchestra made up of attendants who worked in the asylum to play for the patients. This was not a much-coveted gig, but it gave Edward the opportunity to hone his skills as a composer, a conductor, and a music director. He kept the job for five years. Edward’s dream of becoming a famous composer turned into reality one evening in early 1898 when he was experimenting on the piano with an idea for a theme. His wife, Caroline Alice, asked him what it was, and he said, “Oh nothing, but something might be made of it.” It was the main theme of the Variations. Then, he began to invent music about his friends. He would play something and turn to his wife and ask her, “Who’s that like?” and she would guess. And so it went until he came up with music for 12 of his friends, with one section for his wife, and the final Variation for himself.

On October 24, 1898, he wrote this letter to his friend and publisher August Jaeger: “Since I’ve been back [from a visit to London] I have sketched a set of Variations for orchestra on an original theme: the Variations have amused me because I’ve labeled ‘em with the nicknames of my particular friends — you are Nimrod. I’ve liked to imagine the ‘party’ writing the variation him (or her) self and have written what I think they wd. have written — if they were asses enough to compose.”

This set of a theme and 14 variations is dedicated to “My Friends Pictured Within.” It is a heartfelt, loving musical portrait gallery of Elgar’s close friends.

The theme itself became known as the Enigma because it was written as counterpoint to a well-known theme, but Elgar refused to tell anyone what the mystery theme was. All he said in a letter was, “The Enigma I will not explain — its dark saying must be left unguessed.”

The secret went with him to his grave; and to this day, dyed-in-the-wool Elgarians continue the quest to find the answer, with no success.

Without realizing it, Elgar had pulled off a master marketing coup. Because he identified each variation not with the name of the person to which it belonged, but only that person’s initials, the Enigma Variations became a wonderful series of mysteries within a larger puzzle, all packaged in superb music. Its first public performance set off a mad rush to break the code.

The first variation following the theme is, C.A.E., Caroline Alice Elgar, Elgar’s beloved and devoted wife. Elgar said he wished it to be “romantic and delicate,” a tribute to the woman who “was my inspiration who devoted her whole life to my happiness.” The music is warm, contented, and passionate.

Variation No. II is Hew David Stewart-Powell, an enthusiastic piano player. Elgar humorously travesties his friend’s characteristic warm-up run over the keys before beginning to play.

Variation No. III is a portrait of Richard Baxter Townshend, a friend with a high voice who by some irony was cast in an amateur play as a gruff old man.

Variation No. IV is W. Meath Baker, Townshend’s brother-in-law. In this piece, we see a bigger-than-life, genial energetic character who in leaving the room accidentally slams the door.

Variation No. V deals with R. P. Arnold. Elgar successfully conveys his pleasant, scholarly character.

Variation No. VI, “Ysobel,” is Isabel Fitton. She was tall, ardent, witty and a viola player. In this variation, we hear difficult viola string crossing exercises turned into pleasing music.

Variation No. VII, “Troyte,” is A. Troyte Griffith — nicknamed “The Ninepin” for his affinity for bowling, or “skittles” as it was then called. Listen to Troyte knock over the pins and then make a hash out of trying to play the piano.

Variation No. VIII is a portrait of Winifred Norbury, a secretary of the local Philharmonic Society. Her distinctive laughter is captured in arching little arpeggio figures.

Variation No. IX, “Nimrod,” is understandably the most famous of the variations, and it is dedicated to, rather than depicts, August Jaeger, who using the travails of Beethoven as an example, talked Elgar out of quitting music during his dreary commission period. “Jaeger” means “hunter” in German, and in the Bible, Nimrod was the hunter. It is this elegant, moving, and noble variation that makes this composition the masterpiece that it is.

Variation No. X, “Dorabella,” is Miss Dora Penny. The title was Elgar’s nickname for Dora and comes from the character Dorabella in Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutti. The music captures Dorabella’s light and elegant solo dancing, and a slight engaging stammer or hesitation in her manner of speaking.

Variation No. XI is the most successfully illustrative of all the variations. It is a musical depiction of Dr. George Robertson Sinclair’s bulldog Dan falling into the River Wye. In bar 1, Dan falls into the river. In bars 2 and 3, he paddles upstream to a landing place, and in bar 5, he lets out a rejoicing bark. Elgar and Sinclair witnessed this event, and Sinclair said to Elgar, “Set that to music.” Elgar did, this is it, and wrote Dan’s name on the original score.

Variation No. XII is Basil G. Nevinson, a wonderful cellist portrayed here in all his talented majesty.

Variation No. XIII, * * * “Romanza,” is a puzzle within the mystery. For many years, no name or initials were publicly connected with this variation. The subject of it was clearly a lady friend for whom Elgar had extremely personal and intimate feelings, but Elgar remained mum notwithstanding many attempts to unseal his lips. Whoever it was, an ocean liner was involved. Just listen to the throbbing of its great engines — or could that sound be Elgar’s pounding and passionate heart?

Variation No. XIV, “E.D.U.” is Elgar himself. “Edoo” was his wife’s nickname for her husband. This bold and vigorous finale was written in his “I’ll show ‘em mood” and sums up the entire piece with a flourish.

Elgar’s days of struggle were over. The public, the critics, and the Crown showered him with praise. He soon became Sir Edward Elgar, a personal friend of Richard Strauss, and one hundred years later, we continue to enjoy his resilient and glorious contributions to classical music.