Great Britain is known more poetically and probably more accurately as The British Isles. There is probably no one alive (or dead, for that matter) who can name all the islands, because there are a staggering 6,289 of them. Admittedly, some of them are rather small. A long time ago when I was a spotty teenager, I used to live on one of them.
Perhaps this geographical curiosity has led to the rather insular character of many British people and why the BBC radio programme Desert Island Discs became so popular. It’s been broadcast weekly since 1942 and the signature tune is a piece called By the Sleepy Lagoon, by Eric Coates. Seagull cries were dubbed over the music to add a dash of local colour until someone realized that seagulls live in the northern hemisphere and would be about as likely to appear on a desert island as a polar bear. The sound effect was dutifully changed to the squawking of tropical birds but this proved unpopular with the British listeners and the seagulls were reinstated, no doubt to their immense satisfaction.
The eighteenth century English composer Benjamin Cooke was organist at Westminster Abbey and Master of the Abbey’s choristers for over thirty years. He wrote a song entitled Albion, thy sea-encircled isle. Albion as you may have forgotten (or possibly never knew), is the ancient name for what is now Great Britain. The words of the song paint a Utopian but somewhat unrealistic picture of what he described as a “happy land,” where “kind Nature sheds her genial showers to raise thy fruits and paint thy flowers.”
Benjamin’s “Happy Land” has long been celebrated in music by many other composers. Purcell, Britten, Vaughan Williams, Bax, Elgar and Butterworth spring to mind. But these of course were British composers, so it’s hardly surprising. Many composers of other nations have been inspired by the sights and sounds of Britain. At the age of twenty, Felix Mendelssohn paid a visit and it had a lasting impression.
This concert overture is perhaps better known by the unlovely name Fingal’s Cave. The cave in question is a natural feature of the uninhabited Scottish island of Staffa, one of the smallest islands of the Inner Hebrides. Even in the nineteenth century, the cave was a tourist attraction because of its spectacular size and appearance. The eerie sounds produced inside by the echoes of waves gave it the atmosphere of a Neolithic cathedral. Jules Verne came to see it and so did William Wordsworth, John Keats, Alfred Lord Tennyson and J. M. Turner, who painted the cave in 1832. Even Queen Victoria made the trip.
One is tempted to ask, who was Fingal? He was possibly (or possibly wasn’t) a mythical hunter-warrior of Irish mythology who might (or might not) have lived in the third century. But why he chose to live in a cold damp cave is anyone’s guess. The cave was on Mendelssohn’s itinerary when, in the summer of 1829 he set out on a walking tour of Scotland with his friend Karl Klingemann. Mendelssohn sketched the opening theme of the overture which came to him while watching the waves. It was originally called Overture for a Lonely Isle, which seems to me rather more evocative than its eventual title.
Nearly six hundred miles to the south are the Channel Islands, which although part of Britain, are actually closer to France. In 1904, Debussy spent some time on the island of Jersey.
This remarkable piece was originally inspired by a painting by Jean-Antoine Watteau in which a group of merry-makers appear to be departing for the mythical Mediterranean island of Cythera, the supposed birthplace of the goddess Venus. Debussy uses the English spelling of “Isle” in the title rather than the French, almost certainly alluding to Jersey.
The piece is full of lightness and grace, words that could equally apply to Watteau’s painting. The Catalan pianist Ricardo Viñes, who gave the first performance, said that it reminded him of Turner’s paintings. Strangely enough, Debussy was fascinated by the paintings of J. M. Turner and he’d studied them on a visit to London in 1902.
Many of the features of Debussy’s mature musical style can be heard in this extended piano piece. Debussy himself admitted that the piece “is difficult to play”. That’s something of an understatement, because it’s a challenge just to play the notes in the right order at the right speed, let alone make any musical sense out of them. Canadian Marc-Andre Hamelin provides a dazzling performance, and this superb CBC video captures the excitement and magic.