As in painting, poetry and every other art form, the power, mystery and majesty of the sea have inspired classical composers for centuries. None was more affected by this watery vastness than Benjamin Britten, who lived near the North Sea virtually his entire life.
“He took the character of the sea seriously,” said Paul Kildea, author of the 2013 biography Benjamin Britten: A Life in the Twentieth Century. “It was almost as though it was as much a part of his life as his mother and father had been. It was present from the very beginning. He knew its danger. He knew its power. He treated it with huge respect and never sentiment.”
Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra will present Britten’s best-known musical depiction of the sea, the Four Sea Interludes from his 1945 opera Peter Grimes during concerts Feb. 1-3. (Also on this program, Ernest Chausson’s Poème de l’amour et de la mer featuring mezzo Clémentine Margaine.) The performances launch a series of sea- and water-themed works that will flow through the remainder of the orchestra’s 2017-18 season:
- March 8-11, La mer. Impressionist master Claude Debussy offers one of the most recognizable and compelling portraits of sea in this trio of “symphonic sketches” from 1903-05.
- March 17, The Moldau from Má vlast. Bedřich Smetana’s sweeping evocation of the revered river that snakes through his native Bohemia is one of the most beloved such works in all classical music.
- April 19-21, Suite from Swan Lake, and May 5, selections from Swan Lake. Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky did not evoke the ocean but a fantastical lake that plays a pivotal role in this time-honored balletic fairy tale.
- May 5, Russian Sailors’ Dance from The Red Poppy. The best-known work by Russian composer Reinhold Glière, this dance is part of a three-act 1927 ballet set in a Chinese harbor.
Britten (1913-1976) grew up in a fishing village in Suffolk, England, and his family’s three-story Victorian home looked directly at the North Sea. As a boy, he swam in its waters and sketched life along the coast. “It was definitely part of his romantic imagination from his earliest days,” Kildea said.
Some of the composer’s first works are depictions of the ocean, and one of his last was to be a sea symphony, a work that he left uncompleted at the time of his death. The sea also plays an integral role in two of his finest operas: Peter Grimes and Billy Budd. The first tells the story of a mercurial fisherman and a seaside village’s suspicions around the death of his apprentice, and the second focuses on a young British seaman who is cruelly charged with a crime he did not commit.
“For someone as descriptive and dramatically astute as Britten was — for him to be able to take that respect [for the sea] that he had in life and bring into his work was something really admirable and he did it with such élan,” Kildea said.
The Four Sea Interludes are essentially scene changes that Britten lifted from Peter Grimes (modifying some endings to make them more self-contained) and compiled into an instrumental suite that has become an orchestral staple.
In his early music, the composer used the shock of dissonance to convey the menace of the sea. But in Peter Grimes, he pulled back from that approach. “He did something far more subtle, which is to use orchestral color,” Kildea said. “And his very sparse harmonic writing in a lot of those Interludes was about him just relaxing and not feeling as though he had to do something incredibly dramatic — the storm aside, of course.”
Adding a further dimension, the author points out that Britten discovered the music of Baroque-era composers Henry Purcell and Dieterich Buxtehude at the time he was conceiving Peter Grimes. He incorporated a passacaglia, a musical form from that era that essentially consists of variations over an ostinato, using it to suggest the “inevitability and repetition” of the sea.
In Billy Budd, completed six years later, Kildea believes that Britten went even further, establishing a musical correlation between the violence of the sea and the violence in society. The author describes the two big interludes in that opera as “almost overwhelming” and the harmonic language as more gratingly complex.
“It reminds me of the [Leonard] Bernstein quote,” Kildea said, “where he says, ‘If you listen to Britten’s music, if you really, really listen to it, there’s something quite unsettling about it under the surface. It’s like gears not quite meshing.’ Bernstein was actually saying that mostly about Grimes, but I think it applies far more to Billy Budd.”
Whatever their mood, style or character, telling musical representations of vast oceans, make-believe lakes and broad rivers can cast as mesmerizing and primal spells as the bodies of water themselves.
TOP: Suffolk residents walk along the coast where Britten wrote many of his works inspired by the sea. | Photo: Britten Pears Foundation