The sea is one of the most flexible sources of poetic metaphor.
Given the right context, it can mean pretty much anything. Franz Schubert plays on this ambiguity in this song, set to a text by Heinrich Heine (who, as we heard earlier, was also connected to Wagner’s Flying Dutchman).
In “By the Sea,” a couple sits by a tranquil sea at dusk, but this lovely image soon becomes more ominous.
Lovely, hymn-like stanzas intersperse with tumultuous, chromatic stanzas, culminating in a disturbing, almost vampiristic image of the speaker drinking the tears that drip onto his lover’s hands.
Two years after Schubert’s death, these Heine settings were grouped together with several other small collections and published under the title of Schwanengesang, or “Swan Songs.”
Not having foreseen his own death, the title was the work of his publishers.