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Sea NymphsThe sea has forever stirred the imagination of painters, poets, bards, and composers. In music, Ralph Vaughan Williams gave us “A Sea Symphony,” Claude Debussy his “La Mer,” Wagner his “Flying Dutchman.” Rimsky-Korsakov also depicts the sea in the first and last movements of his famous “Scheherazade.” In addition to these well-known works, however, there are other, lesser-known musical masterpieces inspired by the ocean. Here are six you have probably never heard.

1. Jean Sibelius: The Oceanides

Though named for the the water nymphs in Greek mythology, Sibelius’ eleven-minute tone poem, one of his favorites among his works, was probably meant to depict more generally the ocean itself. The mysterious opening with its chirping woodwinds does, however, bring to mind buxom nymphettes darting about in the waves. The rest of the piece captures the various moods of the sea, including a climactic and frightening depiction of what must be a tempest. A masterpiece.

2. Peter I. Tchaikovsky: The Tempest

Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture and Rome and Juliet are played ad nauseam, but few have heard of this tone poem based on Shakespeare. It opens with a truly unforgettable, haunting depiction of the ocean, a distant horn sounding over tremulous strings, woodwinds chirping in the background. After a few minutes, there is a segue, and the strings and woodwinds begin building the drama. Then the trademark Tchaikovskian “big tune” enters. It all comes to a rousing conclusion . . . almost. The haunting music of the opening part unexpectedly returns, and the piece ends in mystery. To those who love this composer but are sick to death of hearing his “greatest hits,” I urge you to try The Tempest, a substantial work at 22 minutes.

3. Antonio Vivaldi: In Turbato Mare Irato

This almost unknown motet, “On the Angry and Turbulent Sea,” some fifteen minutes in length, is simply one of the glories of the Baroque era—or any era for that matter. In the first movement, one of incredible nervous energy so typical of Vivaldi, the speaker is caught in a storm at sea. In the second movement, Vivaldi attains a wondrous sense of repose, as the speaker prays to the “beautiful star” above, the Virgin Mary. The piece concludes with a joyful Alleluia.

4. Hector Berlioz: Le Corsaire

This nine-minute overture is a swashbuckling mini tone poem guaranteed to stir your blood. The pirate was one of those archetypes that Berlioz and the Romantics loved: the individual who roamed nature and who challenged the social order. This piece conjures up images of Errol Flynn storming the high seas. Why Le Corsaire is not a curtain-raiser at more concerts is a mystery.

5. Beethoven: Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage

Beethoven’s work is an eight-minute cantata for chorus, based on the two eponymous poems by Goethe. It begins quietly, with foreboding (the calm sea is a calamity for sailors, as they are stranded without wind). But then the wind picks up, as do Beethoven’s tempo and the voices of the singers. This choral work ends with a fiery conclusion, reminiscent of the finale of the composer’s famous Ninth Symphony.

6. Felix Mendelssohn: Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage

Mendelssohn’s Hebrides overture (also known as Fingal’s Cave) is his better known musical depiction of the sea, but this tone poem, some eleven minutes in length and inspired by Goethe’s words and Beethoven’s example, is just as exciting. The word-less piece begins quietly with strings and then, like Beethoven’s, brims with joy as the entire orchestra joins in. There is a rollicking cadenza for the timpani which brings the piece to its celebratory, conclusion, replete with splendid horns.

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1 reply to this post
  1. Great article! As a lifelong listener of classical music, I had not actually heard of most of these pieces and will enjoy listening to them. Claude Debussy’s La Mer and “The Triton Fountain At Noonday” from Ottorino Respighi’s Roman Fountains are two other sea-themed favorites of mine.

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