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Classical Compositions Inspired by the Sea

By: Matt Joyner

Nature is an omnipresent beautiful thing that surrounds us each

and every day, and has long provided inspiration to the music we hear.

Countless musical compositions have been made thanks to this

inspiration. This paper will discuss several classical compositions

from different genres that have been inspired by the sea and other

things relating to sea life. It will also strive to discuss how some

of these composers depicted the sea with their compositional


Symphonic Compositions

A Sea Symphony

British composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams, composed his first

symphony around the sea. This is why this symphony is also referred

to as the Sea Symphony. The first sketches for this work were made in

1903, and it was gradually worked on over the next seven years.1

British composers were expected to produce large choral works during

this time.2 Vaughan Williams took this into account in his composition

of his symphony by adding a large chorus and two soli (baritone and

soprano). However, this work is still symphonic rather than narrative

David Manning, Vaughan Williams on Music (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
2008), 335.
Byron Adams, Vaughan Williams Essays (Burlington: Ashgate Publishing
Company, 2003), 92.

or dramatic.3 The orchestra has an equal share with the chorus and

soloists in carrying on these musical ideas of the sea.4 The words to

the composition were selected from various poems in Walt Whitman’s

Leaves of Grass, specifically ‘Sea Drift,’ ‘Song of the Exposition,’

and ‘Passage to India.’5

There are two main musical themes throughout the symphony. The

first centers around a harmonic progress to which the opening words

for the chorus are sung. The other theme centers around the melodic

phrase sung by the chorus: “and on its limitless heaving breast, the

ships…”6 Throughout, the sea is a metaphor for the ocean of existence,

on whose ‘limitless heaving breast’ the reckless soul sails forth for

deep waters, where no terrestrial mariner has dared yet to go.7

Vaughan Williams did not stop here with his compositions

reflecting the sea. He also wrote a one-act opera, Riders to the Sea,

that will be discussed later in the paper.

La Mer

French composer, Claude Debussy, started composing a symphonic

work entitled La Mer (French for “the sea”) in the summer of 1903

while staying with his in-laws in the country.8 Debussy had long been

infatuated with the sea.9 To Debussy, the sea was the mightiest and

Manning, VW on Music, 335.
Ibid, 335.
Ibid, 336.
Ibid, 335.
Adams, VW Essays, 55.
Simon Trezise, Debussy: La Mer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
1994), ix.
Trezise, La Mer, 1.

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inescapable of natural phenomena.10 Nature had spoken to him and he

allowed his emotional world to be absorbed in his musical responses.11

Debussy once wrote:

“Who can know the secret of musical composition? The sound of

the sea, the outline of a horizon, the wind in the leaves, the

cry of a bird -- these set off complex impressions in us. And

suddenly, without the consent of anyone on this earth, one of

these memories bursts forth, expressing itself in the language of

music. It carries its own harmony within itself.”12

Before composing La Mer, Debussy had written several pieces about

water such as Petite suite (1888-9), Cinq poèmes de Baudelaire (1889),

Trois mélodies (1891), Proses lyriques (1892), Nocturnes (1897-9),

Estampes (1903) and L’isle joyeuse (1904).13

La Mer is series of three symphonic sketches: ‘mer belle aux

Îles Sanguinaries’, ‘jeu de vagues,’ and ‘le vent fait danser la

mer’.14 Though these compositions are very reflective of the sea,

Debussy composed much of it away from the sea. In any case, Debussy

expressed his passion for the sea on so many occasions, that it is

needless to say that the sea plays such an integral element in much of

his works.15

Simon Trezise, The Cambridge Companion to Debussy (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1994), 108.
Trezise, La Mer, 2.
Ibid, 2.
Ibid, 1.
Ibid, 12.
Ibid, 12.

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Figure 1: Example from Debussy’s La Mer, II mm. 36-9, and 163-6.16

An example of how Debussy depicts the sea in his musical writing

is depicted above. You can see the violas and cellos playing

arpeggiations of chords with double strikes of the bow below the

violins and flutes trilling. This effect creates a picture of rocky

waves crashing against one another.

Operatic Compositions

The Flying Dutchman (Die fliegende Holländer)

One of Richard Wagner’s many operas centers around a famous ship,

The Flying Dutchman. The maritime subject was appropriate for Wagner.

Wagner, with his family, fled in 1839 from Riga, Latvia to London and

endured three and a half weeks of seasickness on a trip that typically

lasts eight days.17 They encountered three terrible storms, one of

which forced them to anchor at Sandvike, Norway.18 This comes as a

Trezise, La Mer, 77.
Michael Steen, Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman: A Short Guide to a Great
Opera (Dublin: Original Writing Ltd., 2014), 2.
Steen, The Flying Dutchman, 2.

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major inspiration for his full poem Der fliegende Holländer, The

Flying Dutchman which was completed in May 1841 with the score

following in mid-November.19 The Flying Dutchman premiered in Dresden

on January 2, 1843, with Wagner himself conducting the performance.20

The audience reception was poor as the found it “too gloomy.”21

The opera is set in Norway and tells of a seaman, the Dutchman,

who has tried for seven years to end his life, but has failed. He is

condemned to the sea until the Day of Judgement, unless he can find a

bride. Daland, a Norwegian skipper, offers his daughter Senta as a

wife. Senta falls in love with the Dutchman. However, Senta has a

fiancée, Erik. Erik temporarily convinces Senta to stay with him,

until the Dutchman starts to leave for the sea, at which point Senta

rushes to the cliff top, pledges herself to the Dutchman and leaps

into the sea, redeeming the Dutchman from his curse.22

The Pirates of Penzance

On a less serious side of things, Sirs Gilbert and Sullivan

composed several operas and operettas that involved or alluded to the

sea. One of these compositions is the famous work, The Pirates of

Penzance. Gilbert and Sullivan collaborated while in New York on this

new work in hopes that it would be copyrighted in the United States in

the hope of avoiding pirated productions…no pun intended.23 Sullivan

completed the score on December 28, 1879, only a day before the dress

Steen, The Flying Dutchman, 2.
Ibid, 3.
Ibid, 3.
Ibid, 5-6.
Alan James, The Illustrated Lives of the Great Composers: Gilbert &
Sullivan, (London: Omnibus Press, 1989), 77.

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rehearsal and two days before its opening.24 To make matters worse,

the time crunch was exacerbated by Sullivan leaving his original score

sketches in London. He was then forced to rewrite all of the opera

from memory.25 The first performance still took place in England at the

Royal Bijou Theatre on December 30, 1879. The performance proved to

be quite frantic. The overture was not ready, there were no proper

costumes (only those from the previous opera), and the entire cast

performed with their score in hand.26 However, the New York

performance, the following day, was much less frantic and received

grand successes.27

While not directly alluding the sea, the plot does involve

pirates. The opera is centered around a young man, Frederic, who had

been apprenticed to pirates due to an error made by his nursery-maid,

Ruth. Ruth, realizing her mistake, stays on board as one of the

crew. Frederic, who loathes the idea of piracy, plots an expedition

to destroy the pirates. However, he is confronted by the Pirate King

and Ruth with bad news – since his birthday is February 29th, Leap Day,

he has technically only had five “birthdays”, meaning that he is

technically still a pirate. Frederic is forced to reveal his plan of

debauchery, and the pirates go to seek revenge. Ruth saves the day by

revealing to the pirates that they are really just noblemen who have

gone astray. Frederic and the pirates are freed and can finally marry

their love interests.28

James, Gilbert & Sullivan, 77.
Ibid, 77.
Ibid, 77.
Ibid, 77.
Ibid, 197.

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Riders to the Sea

In addition to composing his first symphony around the sea,

entitled A Sea Symphony, British composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams,

also composed a short, one-act opera around the sea entitled Riders to

the Sea. Williams completed this short composition in 1927 with

libretto from J.M. Synge’s play of the same title.29 In this opera, the

sea is the protagonist of the story,30 so it is probable to state that

the theme of man-against-nature is every present throughout the


The sense of key throughout the opera is generally fluid and

indeterminate, likened to the ebbs and flows of the sea.32 The opening

of the entire opera begins with the orchestra depicting the sea in all

its violence and unpredictability. This is accomplished through

techniques like crescendos and decrescendos (essentially volume

swells) and the rolling bass line (the tremolo in lower string

voices).33 The ambiguous sense of key and tonality is also present in

the opening orchestra through use of the octatonic scale and

bitonalities. The intervals of the lower voices are stacked “A ♭-D ♭-

A ♭”, which is what is referred to as a quartal-quintal harmony. This

is a classic example of bitonality.34 An example of the opening passage

of Riders to the Sea is provided below.

D. Hugh Ottaway, “Riders to the Sea,” The Musical Times 93, no. 1314
(1952), 358.
Ottaway, “Riders to the Sea,” 358.
Adams, VW Essays, 56.
Ottaway, “Riders to the Sea,” 359.
Adams, VW Essays, 61.
Ibid, 61.

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Figure 2: The opening passage to Vaughan Williams’ Riders to the Sea.35

Vocal/Choral Compositions

Sea Pictures

Sir Edward Elgar composed a song cycle for soprano and orchestra

in 1899 entitled Sea Pictures. The cycle begins with ‘Sea Slumber

Adams, VW Essays, 61.

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Song’ with words by Roden Noel (1834-94).36 Beginning with an

undulating motion in the lower voices, like many other composers use,

depict, in this case, sleeping sea birds.37

Perhaps the most sea-involved section of this piece comes from

‘Sabbath Morning at Sea’. The text is from a poem by Elizabeth

Barrett Browning.38 Here, the text is most important as the five

verses make for an uneasy transition from the progress of a solemn

ship to a higher place where saints keep an ‘endless Sabbath


Tonality throughout the piece bounces from key to key, at time

sporadically. For example, in ‘Sea Slumber Song’, the tonal centers

focus around C major, then to E major, to A ♭ major, then finally back

to C major.40 This constant change of keys is common when depicting

the sea.


When it comes to natural inspiration for musical compositions,

the sea has long been a source of inspiration. From Wagner’s The

Flying Dutchman (1843) to Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Riders to the Sea

(1932), the classical music world is filled with allusions to the sea.

The technique that composers use seems to be closely related.

Tonality becomes ambiguous to depict the ambiguous shape and flow of

the waves. The bass line has ominous sounds to demonstrate how brutal

Robert Anderson, Elgar (New York: Schirmer Books, 1993), 289.
Anderson, Elgar, 289.
Ibid, 290.
Ibid, 290.
Ibid, 290.

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the sea can be. The upper voices have fluttering moments that

demonstrate the chaotic nature of the sea. All in all, the voicings

and orchestrations are similar.

For compositions specifically about the sea, one might tend to

choose more of a symphonic piece. The power of the full orchestra

tends to paint a wonderful picture of the sea. Operas and vocal works

tend to talk about life or things of the sea, such as pirates or

ships, though this is not a completely exclusive subject for this


Some may say that the sea is entrancing, and for some composers

that is the case. Debussy was one of these composers who was

entranced. The sheer beauty of the sea cannot be denied, and it has

been the center for many classical compositions.

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Adams, Byron. Vaughan Williams Essays. Burlington: Ashgate

Publishing Company, 2003.

Anderson, Robert. Elgar. New York: Schirmer Books, 1993.

James, Alan. The Illustrated Lives of the Great Composers: Gilbert &
Sullivan. London: Omnibus Press, 1989.

Manning, David. Vaughan Williams on Music. Oxford: Oxford

University Press, 2008.

Ottaway, D. Hugh. “Riders to the Sea” The Musical Times 93, no. 1314
(1952): 358-360.

Steen, Michael. Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman: A Short Guide to a

Great Opera. Dublin: Original Writing Ltd., 2014.

Trezise, Simon. Debussy: La Mer. Cambridge: Cambridge University

Press, 1994.

Trezise, Simon. The Cambridge Companion to Debussy. Cambridge:

Cambridge University Press, 1994.

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