Edward Elgar isn't regarded too highly as a song-writer, with the exception of his orchestral song-cycle Sea Pictures. These are five marvellous songs.
The set begins with my favourite, Sea Slumber-Song, in which the Sea-Mother lulls her unruly child to sleep. A theme for strings based on rising and falling arpeggios is only the first of several evocative 'sea themes'. The second is a gently rocking figure and the third is a deep, swelling accompaniment (a prophecy of Britten's third Sea Interlude). How beautifully the singer's opening melody opens out at that magical on 'slumber' and how wonderfully she rides the majestic waves of Elgar's orchestra. Those harp flourishes and flute responses instantly summon sea spray and gulls and the poem's tenderness is enhanced by the allusions to 'There's No Place like Home' (aka Home! Sweet Home!).
Next comes In Haven, a strophic song that lightly hymns Love's power over the elements. It has a delicate accompaniment and a pretty tune. The curling figure that precedes each verse's climax (first heard on clarinet, then on oboe) is particularly attractive. Soft strings warmly shadow the tune during the final verse - a lovely touch.
Sabbath Morning at Sea, standing at the cycle's centre, bows down solemnly in awe of nature and God. A rising phrase, appearing first in the opening bars, aspires to such a vision. Initially it seems that it might not meet it but a splendid surge of nobility at the song's heart as well as the memorable violin-entwined phrases that follow it change that and provide the song's satisfying climax. Most satisfyingly, the deep, swelling figure from the first song twice returns, heralded by some gorgeous harmonies - as also discreetly does the figure from the cycle's opening bars.
Where Corals Lie, in which the sea's allure conquers human love, is Sea Pictures' best-known song. It has an unforgettable melody and a supremely delicate accompaniment. At each verses' emotional climax - all triumphs of minor-to-major-and-back-again modulations - the strings bring in fresh warmth.
The final song, The Swimmer, paints a picture of the harm the sea can do and how friendly it used to do. The contrast is made by setting violent orchestral figuration and a complementary declamatory vocal manner against gentler lyrical material led by a strong, striding tune. Note the return of the alluded lullaby from the first song along the way. It's a grand show stopper and it's no wonder Elgar placed it at the end of his cycle.
(All the texts for Sea Pictures can be found here).
As a coda, why not also try his lovely In Moonlight? Admirers of his glorious tone poem In the South will recognise the tune (which is also sometimes heard as his Canto popolare). Indeed, Elgar adapted the tune from In the South and used it to set a poem (or part of a poem) by Shelley. It's always good to hear this tune and this song is an endearing one.