We remind ourselves that Britain is still a maritime nation, a favoured land, ‘This sceptred isle….This precious stone set in the silver sea’.
Living in ‘Sussex-by-the sea’, it’s time I wrote something more about our sea coast. (See my earlier post ‘Holy Island’) My title is taken from Edward Elgar’s collection of four songs for solo voice and orchestra, ‘Sea Pictures’, a beautiful collection of songs. My favourite recording of this was by Janet Baker.
Surrounded on all sides by thousands of miles of coastline, we’ve had to come to terms with the sea. In doing so we’ve discovered it not as a threat but as a friend. It has brought us trade and influence in the world, supplied us with food, provided us with health and holiday relaxation and has kept us safe from invasion on many occasions. It’s produced seamen like Drake, Nelson, Captain Cook, Francis Chichester, and more recent yachtsmen and women with their remarkable round-the-world achievements.
The ‘Music’ of the Sea
With the salt-laden wind on our faces, we stand on this coast listening to ‘the immemorial music of the sea, ever restless, ever changing’ (Richard Jefferies). We can’t escape the constant ebbing and flowing of the tides and the waves ever breaking on our shores, accompanied by the cry of seabirds, and the clanking of rigging on yacht masts in the harbour. On a sunny day, there are happy shouts of children on the beach, digging sand castles, searching among the flotsam on the shore for any ‘treasures’ washed up from a distant land, dipping into rock pools, or braving the cold waters of the sea. Then there’s that delicious feeling of walking barefoot across wet, newly washed sand as the tides recedes, or just relaxing on the beach with the soothing sound of the waves in the background.
Perhaps the most famous sea music is Debussy’s ‘La Mer’. The piece has some English connections, as it was finally completed while Debussy was staying on the Sussex coast at Eastbourne. It’s a very moving symphonic poem evocatively presenting the sea in all its various moods.
The music opens with the early morning glistening of the sunlight on the waters as the day dawns, with a thousand flickering stars shimmering on the sea..
The wind strengthens and the ever restless, rising and falling waves respond. We imagine a seascape filled with white crested ‘sea horses’ as the waves break in the wind.
The final movement is full of brooding atmosphere as it brings us a storm rising in ferocity, as we sense the interplay of powerful forces. This section was probably influenced by Debussy’s memories of once being caught out in a fishing boat in a terrifying storm. We’re confronted by the awesome strength of the oceans, and with the mystery of their hidden depths—that vast unexplored part of our planet.
As I listen to this wonderful ‘impressionistic’ music on stereo earphones, I’m transported out to sea with the wind on my face, tasting the salty air, and feeling immersed in the sounds of the sea all around me.
Ships and Sailors
However, unlike the holiday makers, for those who work on the sea, storms are a hazard of the job. Fishermen, lifeboat crews and merchant seamen, are in some of the most dangerous occupations. We admire their dedication and bravery.
Tom Cunliffe’s fascinating series of BBC documentary programmes ‘The Boats that Built Britain’ reminded us of our sea-going heritage. The crowds that turned out to see the arrival of the aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, in nearby Portsmouth harbour recently, watched as this brand new British-built vessel berthed not far from Nelson’s ‘HMS Victory’. The old and the new remind us that we’re still a maritime nation.
Enjoy the sea as God’s gift, and may the sea reward and bless us as it has in the past.
Here’s wishing you Mendelssohn’s ‘calm sea and a prosperous voyage’ or if it’s rough and stormy, safe arrival at last into the ‘desired haven’, Our Creator holds the seas in his hands, as in Herbert Sumsion’s lovely choral piece, ‘They that go down to the sea in ships’, based on these words:
‘Some went out on the sea in ships;
they were merchants on the mighty waters.
They saw the works of the Lord,
his wonderful deeds in the deep.’…….
A ferocious storm arrives and the sailors are in peril.
….’Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble,
and he brought them out of their distress.
He stilled the storm to a whisper;
the waves of the sea were hushed.
They were glad when it grew calm,
and he guided them to their desired haven.’
Psalm 107 verses 23-30