Are you feeling landlocked? Ready to catch a few waves, splash in the surf and dig your toes in the sand? This hour on Harmonia, we’re headed to the beach, exploring ocean-themed music from across the centuries. From the winds and waves of a storm at sea to divine guidance, from mythological sea creatures to a lively boatman’s dance – composers from the Middle Ages, Renaissance and baroque often turned to the sea for inspiration. We’ll also sample a 2018 recording of Georg Frideric Handel’s beloved opera Acis and Galatea from the Early Opera Company under the direction of Christian Curnyn.
Music from Medieval England, an anonymous 13th-century conductus "Flos regalis virginalis." The Norwegian ensemble Trio Medieval made that recording, part of their 2005 release Stella Maris, or "star of the sea," an album of music largely dedicated to the Virgin Mary. “Star of the Sea” was a title closely associated with Mary in Medieval times, and in many coastal communities, she was thought to provide special protection for seafarers.
The Peaceful Western Wind
For as long as humans have been making music, the sea has exerted a powerful pull on our artistic imaginations. Sometimes composers attempted to channel its sounds and movements. More often, the sea was a metaphor – for love or God or other powerful forces. We’ll explore all kinds of music about the sea this hour on Harmonia, from the 13th century to the 18th.
We’ll start with music from England, a country whose fortunes have long been bound up with the sea.
As an Elizabethan gentleman, Thomas Campion didn’t need to earn a living. Instead he pursued what he loved, becoming a poet, physician, theorist and composer. Campion often set his own texts to music, including the well-known lute song “Never weather-beaten sail.” In the song, recorded here by Jeffrey Thomas and David Tayler, Campion compares the soul to a weary ship, angling at last into shore.
We heard Jeffrey Thomas accompanied by David Tayler in a rendition of Thomas Campion’s lute song “Never weather-beaten sail.”
One more watery dispatch from England, this one by 16th-century composer and theatrical entrepreneur Richard Farrant. In the consort song “Ah alas you salt sea gods,” from an unidentified play, the character Panthea laments the loss of her husband, calling on the seagods to hear her pain. We’ll hear soprano Catherine King and the Rose Consort of Viols.
“Ah alas you salt sea gods,” a lament by Richard Farrant, recorded here by the Rose Consort of Viols and Catherine King.
Few texts have been set more often and with more care in Western music than the Bible’s book of psalms. And the psalms are awash in oceanic imagery. In Psalm 46, the sea is a destroyer:
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved:
And though the hills be carried into the midst of the sea;
Though the waters rage and swell.
We’ll journey to Italy to hear “Deus Noster Refugium,” a two-part setting of these watery verses published in 1565 by the Venetian composer Andrea Gabrieli. On his title page, Gabrieli offered the suggestion that his works would be "extremely comfortable to sing both with fresh voices and with instruments of every kind.” Director Wilfried Rombach, leading the groups Ensemble Officium and Ensemble Gabinetto Armonico, has chosen to take Gabrieli at his word: part one of the motet showcases both instruments and voices, while part two features voices alone.
Ensemble Officium and Ensemble Gabinetto Armonico under Wilfried Rombach performing “Deus Noster Refuium,” Andrea Gabrieli’s setting of Psalm 46.
Boats are useful for crossing oceans, but they’ve long done double duty as metaphors. The aria “Siam nave all’onde algenti,” or “We are ships on the waves,” from Antonio Vivaldi’s opera L’Olimpiade, compares lovers to ships facing headwinds, and demands tempestuous runs from both singer and orchestra. We'll hear soprano Laura Giordano accompanied by Concerto Italiano and Rinaldo Alessandrini.
“We are ships on the waves,” or “Siam nave all’onde algenti,” an aria from Antonio Vivaldi’s opera L’Olimpiade in a recording by Concerto Italiano, Rinaldo Alessandrini, and Laura Giordano.
From Italy to Germany – the port city of Hamburg, where, in 1723, Georg Philipp Telemann honored Hamburg’s connection to the sea with his orchestral suite, “Hamburger Ebb’ und Fluth.” Composed to celebrate the one hundredth anniversary of the founding of Hamburg’s College of Admiralty, the suite embraced oceanic mythology, depicting sea gods and goddesses at play.
Let’s listen to three movements from Telemann’s suite, commonly known as “Wassermusik,” recorded by the Collegium Pro Musica under the direction of recorder player Stefano Bagliano.
We’ll hear a bouree, depicting the sea goddess Thetis, followed by a loure representing Neptune, lord of the deep. And finally we’ll head back to shore with a sprightly canarie, a dance for merry boatmen.
Three movements from Telemann’s orchestral suite “Hamburger Ebb und Fluth,” a bouree, a loure, and a canarie, in a recording from Collegium Pro Musica and Stefano Bagliano.
Star of the Sea
For well over a millennium, Mary, mother of Jesus, has been known by an alternative title, “Stella Maris,” or "star or the sea."
It’s an alias she likely picked up by mistake, the result of a mis-transcription by an ancient copyist. But it’s a lovely name, and it stuck, becoming especially popular in the Middle Ages, when prayers to Mary were thought to protect seafarers. The plainsong hymn "Ave Maris Stella" (or “Hail, Star of the Sea”), may have been composed as early as the 8th century, and has been used as the basis for many compositions since then.
Let’s track our sea star though the ages- beginning in the 13th century, with a version found in a manuscript in Worcester. The group Anonymous 4 recorded this version.
The vocal group Anonymous 4 singing "Ave maris stella," a vespers hymn from 13th century England.
Fast forwarding to the 15th century, we come upon the influential Franco-Flemish composer Guillaume Dufay. In his three-voice setting of "Ave maris stella," he takes the plainsong version and paraphrases it in the uppermost voice, dancing around the original melody. We’ll hear a recording by the Boston-based vocal ensemble Blue Heron.
That was music from the 15th century by Guillaume Dufay, the hymn “Ave Maris Stella,” recorded by the vocal ensemble Blue Heron.
Born blind in 16th century Spain, the organist and composer Antonio de Cabezon nevertheless climbed the musical ranks, eventually entering the service of Queen Isabella and other members of the royal family. After Cabezon’s death, his son published a collection including this intabulation of "Ave Maris Stella," recorded here by Greg Wilson on harpsichord.
We heard harpischordist Greg Wilson performing an intabulation of the hymn "Ave Maris Stella" by the Spanish composer and organist Antonio de Cabezon.
One more star of the sea - this one from the Dutch composer Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, recorded by the Gesualdo Consort Amsterdam. Sweelinck’s "Ave Maris Stella" dates from the early 17th century. It’s quite brief, only a minute long, and it’s also a canon, with the outer voices singing the same material at different times.
That was the Gesualdo Consort Amsterdam singing "Ave Maris Stella," a three-voice canon by Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck.
Acis and Galatea
That’s the last of our stargazing, but we’ll snatch a few more moments by the sea as we listen to music from this week’s featured release, a 2018 version of George Frideric Handel’s beloved opera Acis and Galatea, recorded by the Early Opera Company under the direction of Christian Curnyn.
Acis and Galatea was Handel’s first stab at English language opera, and it proved among his most popular works. Borrowing from Ovid’s Metamorphosis, it tells the story of the sea nymph Galatea and the shepherd Acis, who are in love, and Polyphemus, a one-eyed monster who wants Galatea for himself.
Things get bloody - Polyphemus kills Acis with a rock. But happily (or not?), Galatea is able to make Acis immortal by transforming him into a flowing fountain.
Let’s sample two tracks from the Early Opera Company’s production, beginning with the lively opening Sinfonia. We’ll follow that with Galatea lamenting her lost love in “Must I my Acis still bemoan.”
Two tracks from the Early Opera Company’s production of Handel’s opera Acis and Galatea. We heard an instrumental Sinfonia, followed by Galatea’s lament, “Must I my Acis still bemoan.”
Break and theme music
Theme: Danse Royale, Ensemble Alcatraz, Elektra Nonesuch 79240-2 1992 B000005J0B, Tr. 12 La Prime Estampie Royal
:60, Telemann: Wassermusik, Collegium Pro Musica, Stradivarius 2017, Tr. 11 Concerto for Recorder & Flute in E Minor, TWV 52:e1: I. Largo
The writers for this edition of Harmonia was Anne Timberlake.
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