Classical Connections: Ships that sail the seas

Mastermind: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
Mastermind: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

When I was a very small boy, living on a grey island far, far away, there was a framed print on my bedroom wall which displayed the text of an old Breton prayer.  It included the sentence ma barque est si petite; votre mer est si grande.  At the time, I assumed it meant “My bark is so small; your mother is so big”.  I pondered the possible meanings of this Delphic sentence for some considerable time until it was explained to me that barque means “ship” and mer means “sea”.

Only the other day, a friend reminded me that the word barque is related to the Italian barca which also gives its name to the musical word barcarole.  This was a type of lilting song popular with Venetian gondoliers, the triple metre being vaguely reminiscent of the slow and measured rowing strokes used to propel the boat.  The word was sometimes used to describe instrumental music in a similar lilting style.

The very mention of boats brings to my mind John Masefield’s short poem, Cargoes which begins theatrically enough with the line, “Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir”.  And if your maritime history is a bit hazy, I shall leave you to find out about quinquiremes for yourself.  Assuming of course, that you feel it’s worth the effort.

The German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was an extraordinary multi-talented individual and was one of the greatest German writers, thinkers and scientific theorists of all time.  I only mention him because in 1795 he wrote two short but oddly expressive poems called Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage.  Although they have only eighteen lines between them, these two poems inspired musical works by several composers, notably Mendelssohn, Beethoven, and Schubert.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, Op. 112. Warsaw Boys Choir, Frederic Chopin University of Music Symphony Orchestra, Poland cond. Krzysztof Kusiel Moroz (Duration: 08:50 Video: 1080p HD)

Mention the title and most people will think of Mendelssohn, because in 1827 he wrote an orchestral concert overture inspired by Goethe’s verses.  However, twelve years before – in 1815 – Beethoven had set the same poems as a short cantata for choir and orchestra.  This small masterpiece has been described as “one of the most overlooked works in Beethoven’s output”.  Yet it’s thoroughly charming and beautifully performed by these young musicians from Poland, recorded in top quality video.  Incidentally, Beethoven actually knew Goethe well and had admired Goethe’s poetry since his youth.

You’d be forgiven for assuming that Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage mean more-or-less the same thing.  But not so.  In the days of sailing ships, a totally silent, calm sea with no wind was cause for fear and alarm.  The first poem is about a ship hopelessly becalmed, while the second one describes how the wind lifts and the vessel joyfully continues its journey towards land.

Ships have also featured in operas.  You may recall that Gilbert and Sullivan opera which takes place aboard the HMS Pinafore and was first performed in 1878.  Then there are the fine sea operas of Benjamin Britten which at least owe something to Richard Wagner’s opera The Flying Dutchman, first performed in 1843.  But this was a very different ship to the comically-named HMS Pinafore.

Richard Wagner (1813-1883): Overture, The Flying Dutchman. National Children’s Orchestra of Great Britain (Main Orchestra) cond. Howard Williams (Duration: 09:54 Video: 360p)

The Flying Dutchman is a legendary ghost-ship destined to roam the oceans forever.  In his 1870 autobiography Mein Leben (“My Life”) Richard Wagner claimed that he had been inspired to write the opera following a stormy sea crossing he made from Riga (now in Latvia) to Britain in July and August 1839.

It had been a particularly bad year for him and he was heavily in debt.  He was forced to leave the country illegally with his long-suffering wife Minna and Robber, their enormous Newfoundland dog.  The voyage was neither calm nor prosperous, because they encountered mountainous seas and ferocious storms, one of which almost wrecked the ship.  What should have been a voyage of a few days, turned out to be a nightmare lasting three and a half weeks.

You can still sense the terror of the storm in the opening bars of the overture.  This is a spirited performance by one of Great Britain’s youngest orchestras, splendidly conducted by Howard Williams who has performed over seventy different operas, mostly with the English National Opera.

Oh, and just in case you’re still wondering about the Breton prayer I mentioned at the start, here it is in full:

Protégez-moi, mon Seigneur, Ma barque est si petite, Votre mer est si grande.

I can’t help wondering whether Richard Wagner might have uttered rather similar words during his horrific voyage in the summer of 1839.