Saturday, 18 February 2017

19th, 26th & 27th February - The Sea

CB The Sea 2
Track 1: Whiskey Johnny, Trad
This is Classical Break on Somer Valley FM and I'm Rupert Kirkham. This week's programme was researched and written by Mike Burrows, and showcases music inspired by the sea, the ships that sail on it, and the men who work them. You've just heard the shanty or work-song, Whiskey Johnny. It would have accompanied concerted efforts of hauling on deck: in the days of sailing-ships, the common toil was sufficient almost to blind the sailor to the dangers of being on the open sea: led by one voice, the responses are from the watch; the result seems almost like unholy liturgy.


Next, Alan Rawsthorne's characteristic music for the 1953 film,The Cruel Sea, based on the novel by Monserrat. This combines fanfare-motives in portrayal of the bravery of the men who undertook convoy-escort-duties in the Atlantic and Mediterranean throughout the last War, and impressionistic washes in which those fanfares are made to sound gaunt and hollow – washes both beautiful and delicate and menacing born of chill fogs and mists of broken scoring and strings divisi. The harmonies are bitter and subduing, filled with multiple downward steps, discord and false relations, shifting unexpectedly to undercut the more certain, recognizably consonant moments; the fanfaring favours angular fourths and fifths, Waltonian or Hindemithian in their sardonic edge, and dissolved in the sea's fluid chromaticism... Still, however laconic and ironic the music appears at first, it discloses considerable hypnotic, evocative power. This an affecting elegy for the “many good ships and good men” lost to German bombs and torpedoes, and to the common enemy – the sea, whose moods have a strange, deceptive and cruel beauty.
Track2: The Cruel Sea, Rawsthorne

A tone-poem by a Scottish composer, now, The Ship O'The Fiend, by Hamish MacCunn. Born in the ship-building city of Greenock in 1868, and known more as a conductor than as a composer in his later years, MacCunn in fact began as a composer, and wrote many impressive orchestral works in the last decades of the 19th Century. His career as a concert-composer began with the superb OvertureThe Land of Mountain And Flood, when he was still a teenager. His style is an interesting blend of Scots folkishness, Mendelssohn and Wagner, economically scored, avoiding excess in either mood or manner., but bold in contrasts. His tone-poems evoke Scots ballads and the epic poetry of Sir Walter Scott. He is equally at home writing for the brass, woodwind or strings. His percussion often capped by cymbal clashes that punctuate themes portraying the dashing courage, triumphs and disasters of his heroes and heroines. This mannerism is devoid of toe-curling Lisztian bravado. His orchestration is mixed well, to permit the sections to share and share alike the spotlight. A theme that begins softly in an introduction on horn, oboe or strings will perhaps become a strident chant dominated by trumpets at the climax.

The Ship O'The Fiend is a ballad that tells of how a captain returns to his sweetheart, carries her on-board with him. In the course of several stanzas it is borne in upon the sweetheart and reader that the ship is a ghost-ship with ghost-crew and ghost-captain, heading for hell... The music acquires hollow, Wagnerian brass (trombones prominent), and a clock-like jog-trot in the lower strings, where until now the fullest mingling statement of the thematic material in duet – oboe and horn standing for girl and man - and ardent conversation ending in outright passion - has lured us into thinking only of love. Trumpets and cymbals over stormy seas of string-rushes render as climax the theme of the demon-lover, now an elemental force beyond belief. All subsides as it must. A hushed few rippling and then pityingly quiet moments on the strings – are ended by quiet held notes on horn answered by what sounds like muted brass and strings, and a single loud, curt last, trumpets-and-cymbal-capped chord. No trace remains of theShip O''The Fiend.

Track3: The Ship O The Fiend, McCunn


Galway Bay is the Atlantic at its roughest. For centuries, the men-folk of the Aran Islands had left their rocky shores in light craft to fish and hunt basking--shark for a living, and to supply their communities with food and oil, when the nationalist musician, playwright and poet, John Millington Synge visited, studied their people's Irish dialect, gathered their legends and customs. He returned to the mainland with enough knowledge and experience to write a book of reminiscences and stories and a short but powerful play, Riders To The Sea, inventing an English that followed the local speech-rhythms for the characters of the latter to speak.


Vaughan Williams once notated the preaching of a Scottish minister, interested in the element of song in the man's speaking voice. When he composed his One-act opera to Synge's text, he made no attempt to celticize his music; evocative as it is of sea, human courage, death and grief, there was no need... As Synge wrote a play that follows Aristotelian principles of unity of time and place, and death takes place off-stage, Vaughan Williams very likely saw in this piece a universal, Englished Greek-style tragedy, Irish speech-rhythms – to which he remains sensitive - and all. The final soliloquy in the spartan, through--composed opera is typical of the work as a whole: the main character, Maurya sitting in her thin-walled cottage with the relics of her lost ones, and white coffin-boards prepared for the penultimate lost son, sings of the last of her children and menfolk's being gone now – all dead, all drowned in the sea. The sea can do no more to her. 
Ghosts and presages of other Vaughan Williams works haunt the piece: a later work in Dona Nobis Pacem – a protest against War; an earlier in Flos Campi, based on The Song of Songs!; the symphonic works and film music of the late period. One of the notable features is the use of soprano voices keening Irishly, an elemental, menacing sound like but not like the screaming of the wind (a wind-machine is also called-for in this opera): this device was later to recur in the music for the film, Scott of The Antarctic. Synge's words have a beautiful simple dignity, and are the stuff of tragedy in the face of the sea.
No man at all can be living forever, and we must be satisfied.”
Track 4: They Are All Gone Now, Riders To The Sea, Vaughan Williams


Highly successful before the turn of the century with his song-cycle, Sea Pictures, Sir Edward Elgar approached the life of seamen some years later, via the verses of Kipling. 

In The Fringes of The Fleet, the true, unofficial poet laureate had published a tribute in poems and prose to Britain's seamen at the end of 1915, a kind of seaman's eye-view of the War at sea. Elgar seized on the verses and wrote a cycle of four songs for performance in revue at the London Coliseum Theatre. He did ask Kipling's permission, but was not to know that Kipling had lost his adopted son, John, an athletic but acutely short-sighted youth, during the Battle of Loos, a matter of weeks before the booklet's first publication. Last seen wandering on the battlefield with his lower jaw shot away, John had no known grave. In Elgar's “best bloomin' beggar”style – as Stanford might have called it - and 'broad, saltwater style” as he himself did call it - well-sung by chosen singers, the songs proved an instant hit at the Coliseum. Thereafter they received a number of performances at theatres around the country – until Kipling stepped in to end the tour.

The songs are good of their kind, highly effective in all aspects, and form a cycle that expresses the experiences of many men who served at sea during the Great War - experiences at the hands of the Navy – and the sea itself.

The very effectiveness of the songs perhaps damned them in the poet's eyes. He was sick of war: later, the man who had written of “the Hun at the gate”, popularizing the cause of the Imperial armed forces in this war to save Western civilization, would publish a couplet:
“If any question why we died,
Tell them, because our fathers lied.”

There is, in fact, an astringency to the verses Elgar set, a weariness, a cynicism, yet determination to do one's duty and carry on, side by side with the stoicism of the men, that Elgar would have understood well.

To complete the work, a fortnight after the beginning of the show's run, Elgar added a fifth song, setting Sir Gilbert Parker's poem, Inside The Bar. Most sea-shanty-like of the songs it is a song of home, men free ashore, and fickle sweethearts...

The performance you will hear is from an acoustical recording made on the 21st of July, 1917, by the original soloists – without the benefit of costumes or a set portraying the yard outside a dock-side pub - and their highly professional band, conducted by the composer in the first four songs only. The star of the show and recording was – and is - the gifted young baritone, Charles Mott, an excellent singer and actor who lost his life on the Western Front in the following year. Kipling ended the progress of the show in the theatre only after the recordings had been made, and the resultant album of records remained a hugely popular staple of the HMV catalogue for many years.

A loud, susurrating sound-effect heard during the 3rd song, the deep and murky Submarines, was achieved by the use of blocks of wood surfaced with sandpaper!

The five songs are entitled, The Lowestoft Boat; Fate's Discourtesy; Submarines; The Sweepers; Inside The Bar.

Here is the song-cycle, The Fringes of The Fleet, by Edward Elgar.
Tracks 5-9: The Fringes Of The Fleet, Elgar

This was Classical Break on Somer Valley FM, and I'm Rupert Kirkham; today's programme was researched and written by Mike Burrows. We hope you enjoyed it and will tune in again soon. Goodbye!


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