Voices of the Sea: From Felix Mendelssohn to Claude Debussy

Excerpts from the book “Excellent Art 2022 – vol. 3”

Most pieces of classical music featuring the sea are inspired by composers being shipwrecked, and exhibit a pompous, dynamic style of orchestration. Richard Wagner’s Flying Dutchman and Hector Berlioz’s Le Corsaire are two such examples. In my selection for this book, however, I have chosen to focus on works expressing the beauty and the lyrical element of the sea with its poetic range of sounds.

Born and raised in Leipzig, I feel especially drawn to the following overtures by Felix Mendelssohn, the most famous conductor in the history of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra:

The text and the poems in this post are excerpts from the book “Excellent Art 2022 – vol. 3

After visiting the Scottish island of Staffa in August 1829, he wrote his Hebrides Overture, op. 26, making revolutionary use of instrumentation as an artistic tool of atmospheric expression. His literary inspiration came from Celtic poetry. The tone poem’s atmosphere ranges from intense movement to brilliant radiance. The picturesque island on Scotland’s West Coast also inspired one of William Turner’s most popular paintings. Staffa, Fingal’s Cave, painted in 1832, is known as one of the earliest works of Impressionism.

Mendelssohn’s Overture Nr. 3 Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, op. 27 on the other hand, was based on two short poems by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe that had already been set to music and turned into songs by Franz Schubert and Ludwig van Beethoven. The almost graphic depiction of a motionless ship featured in this overture, and the realization of a light breeze picking up, are impressive examples of musical nature writing. The atmosphere of calm water palpably changes to that of a rising wind. Mendelssohnintroduced his work to the public in 1835 at his first concert as conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.

Another musician I admire, being from Leipzig, is Robert Schumann who, in 1840, wrote a piece based on a poem by my favorite poet – Heinrich Heine. The romantic song Evening on the Shore, op. 45,3, written by the German North Sea evokes images of Caspar David Friedrichs atmospheric sea paintings. Johannes Brahms wrote his Three Duets The Seas, op. 20, No. 3 for soprano, alto, and piano in 1860 based on an Italian poem.

In 1899, Edward Elgar united sea poems by five different authors in the romantic song cycle Sea Pictures, Five Songs for Contralto and Orchestra, op. 37. Starting with soft songs and the gentle rocking motion of the sea, we witness the sudden appearance of a dark threat before, finally, a triumphant hymn of love rises from the black sea of souls. Singer Clara Butt, the first singer to perform the work in public, is said to have taken the stage as a mermaid.

Claude Debussy loved the sea so passionately that for a while, he wanted to become a sailor. The third scene in Les Nocturnes for solo violin and orchestra is a meditation on the sound scope of gray and paints the Atlantic Ocean in vivid nuances. Rising from waves glowing in silver moonlight, we can hear the mysterious song of the „Sirènes“ as a women’s choir longingly intones the syllable “ah”. Using the human voice like an instrument rather than assigning lyrics, the composer achieved stunning atmospheric effects.

Debussystarted writing La Mer, his most famous sea-inspired piece, in Burgundy, later adding instrumentational details to the musical tríptych in Jersey and Dieppe. Its mysteriously weightless sound clouds reflect the eternal up and down of the sea and the light of daybreak.

Debussy uses the colors of the orchestra to conjure up visual soundscapes. The third part of La Mer is dominated by contrast and duality. The wind’s floating, murmuring, and howling are expressed in an abstract manner.

The Preludes for piano, finally, are doubtlessly Debussy’s most famous works. Who can withstand the pianist magic and fantastic poetry of The Sunken Cathedral ? His avantgarde sense of aesthetics makes Debussy the first “modern” musician. Inspired by symbolist poets like Charles Baudelaire Mallarmé, his works are tone poems that, like impressionist paintings, capture fleeting moments and find subtle notes for the brilliant nuances of light.

Claude Debussy

„There is nothing more musical than a sunset.“


Gorgeous clouds aflame
With red as the blazing sun
Sinks into the Sea.

As night approaches
Dusk’s reflection cries soft tears
Of cool rosewater.

Walking out at dusk,
Shells mirroring golden clouds
Crunch beneath our feet.

Slowly, the fire
Of the sun dies down in the
Glow of the low tide.

As the sun peers out
From its hideout in the clouds
The sea goes ruby.

In the glowing red
Of the evening sun, the terns
Perform their music.

Sources: Please see the authors, poet and bibliography in the above link to the online book (imprint at the end of the book)!