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Sea Music

Dive into the music inspired by the sea as part of the »Transatlantic« Festival – from a fresh breeze to a violent storm; from Telemann to Britten.

The ocean. An infinite expanse. In a light breeze a mercurial surface that splendidly reflects the sunlight; in high winds a raging mass whipped into towering, foaming waves.

It’s no wonder that painters have, over the centuries, been drawn to attempt to capture on canvas the ever-changing conditions and quality of the light over the sea, from Dutch maritime scenes to impressionist sunsets. In the same way, countless composers have also been inspired by the sea. Here’s a selection of important sea-inspired musical pieces, sorted according to wind force.

Ludwig van Beethoven: Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage (1815)

Wind force: 0


Composing five minutes of dead calm is quite a challenge. In this cantata Beethoven achieves that feat, using the text from two poems by Goethe (Mendelssohn would later pen an instrumental piece inspired by the same works). Just as the eyelids begin to succumb to the general languor, a wind rises.

However, the movement sounds less like a sailing boat and more like a mounted hunting party with horns. No wonder: Beethoven only ever undertook one sea voyage, as part of a journey from Bonn to the Netherlands at the tender age of twelve.

Erik Satie: Le Bain de mer (1914)

Wind force: 1

Erik Satie

Surreal humour and musical laconicism were hallmarks of Erik Satie’s work. His 1914 piano cycle »Sports et Divertissements« is a musical representation of 20 different kinds of sports and leisure activities. The ninth of these is sea bathing. Satie provided a short accompanying beach dialogue: »The sea is large, Madame. It is certainly quite deep. You had better not sit at its bottom because it is very damp. Ah, here come the good old waves. They are full of water. – Oh, you’re soaked through!« »Oui, Monsieur.«

Georg Philipp Telemann: Hamburg Ebb and Flow (1723)

Wind force: 2

Georg Philipp Telemann

Georg Philipp Telemann worked as a musical director in Hamburg for 46 years. His position required him to compose pieces for official ceremonies such as the hundredth anniversary of the Hamburg Admiralty in 1723. Initially founded to protect trade vessels from pirate raids, this institution – a precursor to today’s Chamber of Commerce – soon took on responsibility for the operation of the port.

Telemann’s music was appropriately maritime in mood. The first movement describes the peaceful ocean, the last features the singing of the »jolly boatmen« – and in some interpretations it appears that these sailors are three sheets to the wind. (Last movement from 17:42)

Antonio Vivaldi: La tempesta di mare (around 1720)

Wind force 4–5

Antonio Vivaldi

The motif of the storm was popular and prevalent in the music of the Baroque. Dozens of operas from this period begin with a hero washed up by the winds of fate on the shores of a desert island, where a sorceress/lover/beast awaits him, sometimes all personified in the one and the same figure. Vivaldi, a master when it came to representations of nature, also composed other, earlier, solo concertos for flute and violin that share the same title, »The Storm at Sea«.

As a Venetian, he was probably more familiar with gondolas than with sailing vessels; he had a great view of the Venetian lagoon from the window of the orphanage where he worked as a violin teacher.

Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy: The Hebrides (1832)

Wind force: 6

Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy

As befitting an ambitious young man from a good family, Mendelssohn set off in summer 1829 on an educational tour of Britain. He had previously talked about his intention of writing a Scottish piece »because I love the sea very much from ashore and I even want to use it for a symphony with a bagpipe«. He – sadly? thankfully? – never made good on this intention.

However, he did produce a concert overture as a musical travel account of his stormy crossing to the Hebrides, which he also described in a letter: »The Scottish Highlands and the sea brew nothing but whisky, fog and foul weather.

The steamboat journey was anything but pleasant. The lower the barometer sank, the higher the sea rose. The ladies fell like flies, and one or two gentlemen did the same.«

Claude Debussy: La mer (1905)

Wind force: 2–8

Claude Debussy

With his nebulous sounds, Claude Debussy created the acoustic equivalent to the impressionist paintings of Monet, Manet and Renoir. »La mer« (The Sea) is one of Debussy’s major works, and it is also an exemplary sea music composition. Over its 25 minutes it evokes and expresses the ever-changing nature of the water, using sweeping harps, sparkling flutes and the wave movements of the strings – just reading the score is enough to make you dizzy.

That is no coincidence: in 1889 Debussy undertook a boat journey along the coast of Brittany. As a storm gathered, the fishing boat began to rock and reel so violently that everyone on board succumbed to seasickness – all except for Debussy, who earnestly declared: »Now here’s a type of passionate feeling I have never before experienced. One is alive!« However, thirteen years would pass before he composed »La mer« during a holiday in Burgundy.

In a letter to a friend the composer justified this delay: »You will say that the ocean doesn’t wash the hills of Burgundy. But I have endless memories – and, in my opinion, they are worth more than reality, which generally weighs down our imaginations too heavily.«

Benjamin Britten: Four Sea interludes from Peter Grimes (1945)

Wind force: 10

Benjamin Britten

No one had a greater influence on English music in the twentieth century than Benjamin Britten. Born in Suffolk on the east coast, which bears the brunt of the North Sea storms, he once said: »For most of my life I have lived closely in touch with the sea.

My parents’ house in Lowestoft directly faced the sea, and my life as a child was coloured by the fierce storms that sometimes drove ships onto our coast and ate away whole stretches of the neighbouring cliffs.

In writing my opera ›Peter Grimes‹, I wanted to express my awareness of the perpetual struggle of men and women whose livelihoods depend on the sea.« He achieved this with particular success in the opera’s instrumental interludes, which he later published again under the title »Four Sea Interludes«.

Ralph Vaughan Williams: A Sea Symphony (1903–1909)

Wind force: 0–12

Ralph Vaughan Williams

Faced at the beginning of the twentieth century with the challenge of developing a new symphonic style, Europe’s composers were keeping their noses to the grindstone. In Paris, Ravel and Stravinsky worked on ever more refined sound combinations; in Vienna, Schönberg and his students were experimenting with atonality; while Gustav Mahler’s symphonies increasingly grew in length during this time.

In London, Ralph Vaughan Williams combined several of these elements. Like Mahler’s contemporaneous »Symphony of a Thousand«, Williams’s monumental »Sea Symphony«, which is over an hour in length, uses a choir and several soloists. You can hear a hint of Edward Elgar’s rapturous, late-Romantic cadence and a shade of »Rule, Britannia!« in the piece, as well as the exotic harmonies of Vaughan Williams’s teacher Ravel.

The symphony is based on socio-critical poems by the American poet Walt Whitman and interprets the sea as a key metaphor for life – with all its storms and sunny sides.

Richard Wagner: Overture to the »Flying Dutchman« (1841)

Wind force: 12

Richard Wagner

The main role in Wagner’s early opera »The Flying Dutchman« is played by a ghost ship. Cursed to roam the oceans forever, seamen appear just as disaster looms. Only the true love of a loyal wife can release the captain and his crew from the curse. Wagner composed dramatic, storm-lashed music for this crew, music that could easily be used as a soundtrack to the film »Pirates of the Caribbean«.

Shortly before writing the opera the composer had undertaken a sea voyage of his own. Hopelessly in debt, he fled from Riga with his wife and dog to escape his debtors, setting off by sea. The sailing vessel, which he had boarded covertly, zigzagged the Baltic and North Seas for four weeks, avoiding the German ports. After surviving a number of storms, Wagner finally arrived in London and then travelled onwards to Paris.

After that experience he didn’t need anyone to describe to him how the winds howl in a ship’s rigging – that sound is documented for posterity in the first few bars of the »Dutchman« Overture.

This article was taken from Issue 2 / 2017 of the Elbphilharmonie Magazine.

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