by Robert Simon
In the spring of 1938 Alexander Richter, then head of the music department at New York City’s High School of Music and Art, approached Aaron Copland (1900-90) about writing a short piece for the school orchestra. Richter had been deeply impressed by Copland’s play-opera for children, The Second Hurricane, produced the previous year.
As Copland related in his autobiography, he found Richter’s offer particularly attractive because the work was to be the opening bell in a school campaign, “American Music for American Youth.” He actually interrupted orchestrating his Billy the Kid ballet music to work on the piece.
Richter wanted the music to appeal strongly to adolescent American youth and cautioned Copland in a letter: “I’m reminded that boards of education throughout this country do not take to ultra-modern composition. It seems to be against the ‘institutions of our forefathers’ and what-not. I do not know how you will respond to this hideous reminder, but again I trust your good taste in this matter.”
When Copland later played his piano sketch for him, Richter remarked that it seemed to have an “open-air quality,” and from this the title, An Outdoor Overture, quickly evolved. Richter conducted the premiere performance with the school orchestra on December 16, 1938. It was quickly taken up by “regular” symphony orchestras and has remained in the active repertory ever since. Copland also prepared an arrangement for band. The audience will readily notice that he took to heart Richter’s “hideous reminder,” and avoided writing an “ultra-modern” piece of music.
The year 1899 was transformative for Edward Elgar (1857-1934). After many years of enduring painfully slow public recognition – mostly in the English provinces – he suddenly hit the big time with the premiere in June of that year of his masterful Enigma Variations, Op. 36, which our orchestra performed a few years ago. His reputation skyrocketed and led to his being knighted in 1904, and for many years he was broadly considered the greatest British composer since Henry Purcell (1659-95).
Elgar quickly followed up on the success of his Op. 36 with the song cycle Sea Pictures, Op. 37, composed in July 1899. It was dedicated to Clara Butt (1872-1936), a highly regarded contralto, very attractive, and statuesque at 6’2”. The work was premiered in October 1899 at the Norwich Festival with Elgar conducting and Clara as soloist, dressed as a mermaid(!). Two days later she gave the first London performance at St. James Hall with Elgar at the piano, and about two weeks later performed two of the songs, this time as part of a command performance for Queen Victoria at Balmoral Castle. (We have been unable to learn whether she continued with her mermaid attire at the two subsequent performances.)
Sea Pictures is a cycle of five songs composed to verses, overflowing with metaphor and related devices, by five 19th-century poets of the British Romantic tradition. The first, “Sea Slumber Song”, projects the generally deep calm of a lullaby. It is followed by the brief “In Haven (Capri),” set to a poem by Elgar’s wife Alice (who was also a talented novelist.) Here, two lovers witnessing a storm at sea, find quiet reassurance in the enduring strength of their attachment. The third, “Sabbath Morning at Sea” to words by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, examines a passenger’s thoughts aboard ship on a long voyage. The comforting habits of home, friends and Sunday worship have been left behind, hopefully replaced by her abiding faith in God’s loving spirit and with only heaven above and the sea below sharing the sacrament with her. It is followed by “Where Corals Lie,” arguably the most popular of the cycle, long admired for its direct and delicate simplicity. Here, even the alluring presence of another ultimately fails to keep the singer from the search for the lands “where corals lie” under the sea. The final song “The Swimmer”, starts with the protagonist struggling in turbulent waters. For a fortunate period he does achieve peaceful respite with memories of happier times. However, the storm does return in full fury and the dark thoughts that follow have been imagined by some readers to foretell the poet’s suicide in 1870 at the age of thirty-seven.
With perhaps the exception of his Sea Pictures, Elgar’s art songs have occupied only a relatively minor position within his total oeuvre. This is in contrast to the lasting qualities of his finest choral music such as The Dream of Gerontius. Music scholars have postulated that Elgar’s exceptional capabilities with orchestral accompaniments to vocal music – as compared to those with piano where he possessed much less natural aptitude – provided him the added inspiration and tools to far surpass the ordinary. With Sea Pictures, he did achieve a remarkable synthesis of voice and orchestra. The emotional range of the poems is very broad and critically tests the dramatic and vocal powers of the soloist. The orchestral accompaniment complements the singer to a remarkable degree with touches ranging from the most subtle to the heroic. There are also very imaginative choices of instrumentation that enhance the vocal line and provide wonderful atmospherics. Elgar also imaginatively reintroduces music from earlier songs in the cycle into later ones. It is an artful effect worth listening for.