Greatest pieces of music inspired by water

The Grammy-nominated conductor Anthony Inglis tells us about some of his favourite pieces of music inspired by water. 

La Mer by Debussy

Debussy wrote this in roughly 1904, finishing it at the Grand Hotel in Eastbourne. It’s incredibly evocative of the sea, the wind and the waves. It’s not programme music; programme music describes an event if you like. This is descriptive music. It’s very experimental with the sounds that he created, and if you listen to the last movement, you can hear the waves being whipped up to a bit of a frenzy.

It's performed by a full orchestra. Debussy was one of the first impressionist composers as he wrote a piece called Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun which is considered to be the beginning of Impressionism. Just like in art, he paints these vivid colours, but with an orchestra. He uses it sparingly in places but then whips it up in the final movement—there’s rather a good storm going on.

Fantasia on British Sea Songs by Henry Wood

There’s nothing more appropriate to listen to on the high seas than this. It’s played most years at the last night of the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall. It's about 20-25 minutes long and, obviously, it contains the famous hornpipe and “Rule, Britannia!” at the end. But the whole piece is absolutely wonderful because it was written in 1905 to commemorate the Centenary of the battle of Trafalgar, and it starts with the bugles that would have been heard on the sailing ships of the early 19th century.

So it begins with these bugle calls such as the Admiral salute/Action/General Assembly and there's even a Prepare to Ram call at the beginning of the piece. It also contains various popular sea shanties of the time, such as “The Saucy Arethusa”. “Tom Bowling” is a fabulous cello solo and, of course, “Jack's the Lad” which is the hornpipe.

H.M.S. Pinafore by Gilbert and Sullivan 

HMS Pinafore was written at the end of the 19th century by Gilbert and Sullivan, and this would be classified as possibly “light operetta." It was their first big international hit, and it was rather wonderful because it parodied the class system, so entrenched in the British way of life of the time.

It's the story of an upper-class girl who falls in love with a lower-class sailor on board HMS Pinafore, and a lower-class girl falling in love with the captain of the Pinafore.

But of course, in those days you couldn't marry between classes and the one thing Gilbert and Sullivan loved doing was parodying the class system—they had a ball with the judiciary and the politicians—they absolutely lampooned them.

It does, of course, have a happy ending because it turns out that the sailor and the captain were switched at birth so, actually, the captain was lower-class and the lower-class guy should have been the captain and it all works out happily, it’s just such a cop-out.

It’s a wonderful operetta containing some great tunes such as “I am the captain of the Pinafore” and wonderful songs like that. It's comic music with a lot of two-four tempo or the occasional beautiful tune as well. And a lot of up-tempo numbers which are good fun to sing and to conduct.

The Hebrides by Mendelssohn

In the strict sense of the word, it's not an "overture" because it's not the beginning of a longer composition. It's just a standalone piece of music and it's 12 minutes or so of sheer joy. Mendelssohn wrote it in 1830 when he visited the Hebrides. It's not known whether he actually landed on the island of Staffa where Fingal's Cave is. I've seen it when I passed it on a ship and it’s the most awe-inspiring sight as waves crash into the cave and then bounce back.

The overture is a bit like that. When Mendelssohn first saw it, the opening tune came to him immediately. He wrote down the opening bars of the overture and he wrote to his sister saying, “What do you think of this? I passed by Fingal's Cave on a ship and saw this and was inspired to write this music.”

There's an opening phrase and then an answering phrase and it resembles waves going into the cave and then coming out, and it sounds endless. It just rolls on in this gorgeous way. I love conducting this overture.

The strings of the orchestra are really the key behind this piece. It’s quite difficult to play because there are lots of semiquaver passages—depending on the tempo taken. I don't conduct it too fast. I just like that endless wave; the strings play these semiquavers, and it just keeps rolling along.

The Blue Danube by Johann Strauss

The Danube itself, of course, is not blue, it’s a fairly dirty colour in places, but it’s a wonderful waltz which I conduct very frequently. What's interesting is that it wasn't a success at its first performance. Strauss was a little bit disappointed, but he was fairly relaxed about it and was reported as saying, “The devil take the waltz, but I wish the coda had been more successful.” He loved the coda. He's written two of them, one coda is about 16 bars long and the second coda is a long piece of music in its own right.

A little interesting story is that Strauss's stepdaughter went up to Johannes Brahms and asked him for his autograph. And he apparently wrote on her fan the opening bars of the Blue Danube, and then added: “Alas not by Johannes Brahms.” Although I don't know whether he was thinking of the musical qualities of the Blue Danube waltz or the monetary values of it, because it became incredibly popular.

 

Anthony Inglis is the Grammy-nominated conductor who it is said has featured more times at London’s Royal Albert Hall than anyone else in the building’s history. He will be performing on the "Bravo" Cruise of the Performing Arts on May 19-26, 2018. Books your tickets here