Sea Pictures, Op. 37 (1899)

By Fred Kirshnit

Written for the concert Victorian Secrets, performed on April 2, 2004 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Written immediately after the “Enigma” Variations, Elgar’s Sea Pictures have had a curious performance history. Well accepted by the public from the outset—when the striking contralto Clara Butt appeared at the Norwich Festival in October of 1899 dressed in a mermaid outfit and not in a corset (“guiltless of all confinement” was the contemporary description)—the songs have suffered from rather stuffy academic and critical commentary centering on the lack of profundity of their poems. Actually, however, in the era when Mahler was integrating the banal and the sublime in his Second and Third symphonies, and not too long before Berg would be setting lyrics from picture postcards in his Altenberg Lieder, these exquisite miniatures of Elgar are quite cutting-edge, ushering in a new aesthetic more inclusive of pop culture. Certainly in the age of Gilbert and Sullivan, the line between the opera house and the music hall was blurry indeed. Additionally, looking at the creation of these five lyrics, it is instructive to note that the first composed was penned by Elgar’s wife; perhaps her husband did not want to upstage her work with excerpts from Milton or Shakespeare.

The essence of these songs’ marine imagery is the overwhelming attraction of oblivion. A fitting metaphor for an island nation, the shoreline represents the boundary between the finite and the infinite, the careworn and the carefree, routine and escape. Elgar is extremely deft at bringing together the contemporary pastoral tradition, the Elizabethan view of the unison of love and death, the sentimental ballad, and the “goodbye to all that” nostalgia of the times. Fans of the film Gosford Park will recognize this uniquely British combination in the 1924 song “The Land of Might-Have Been” by the immensely popular Ivor Novello.

The cycle is a marvel of interwoven musical thought. One simple rising and falling motif from “In Haven (Capri)” is the sole building block for the five numbers. The ocean is the comforting, lullaby-singing mother in “Sea Slumber-Song,” peaceful and storm-tossed by turns in the Alice Elgar and the Browning. Perhaps the most remarkable three minutes in all of Elgar is the heart-wrenching “Where Corals Lie,” with verses by Richard Garnett the younger, a major Pre-Raphaelite figure of prodigious intellect. The mood is ecstatic and anticipatory, gay, almost cartoon-like, but the sought-after resolution is extinction (notice how the music of the orchestra gently pulls the listener under). The final song, “The Swimmer,” sets the poetry of Adam Gordon, a figure whose suicide would have been familiar to all in the original audiences. The intensity of its striving only increases the yearning for death. For the composer, Sea Pictures is a diving down to the depths of his soul, an antidote to the celebratory veneer of the “Enigma.” From this point forward, the sea would become a poignant thanatological emblem for English composers, from Gerald Finzi’s Channel Firing, to Arnold Bax’s Garden of Fand, to that most affecting of all British operas, Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes.