A few years ago I crossed the Atlantic in a plane, flying home from Buenos Aires. I woke up around sunrise over the ocean, halfway home. I did not see the sun since the plane headed east. I saw something much more spectacular: a world in blue. The blue of the ocean fazed out into the blue of the atmosphere. By the clouds you could guess where the horizon actually was, but I was not much interested in that. It probably was one of the most beautiful things I had ever witnessed. I could not detach my eyes from it, I lost myself in this blue infinity.
Fantasies about Atlantis
One of the many thoughts that crossed my mind that moment was: And if Atlantis actually existed, centuries ago, buried now under the Atlantic? What if I just was flying over it without knowing? And I imagined seeing ruins of a splendid city, of palaces, temples, market places across the rippling water. A silly thought. A beautiful thought. And I smiled at myself happy to freely drift away in my fantasies.
In 1913-14 the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius wrote a symphonic poem in D major he called “The Oceanides”, Op. 73. It refers to Greek mythology: the life of nymphs in the Mediterranean Sea. Sibelius wrote this piece in one movement with two distinct themes: the games the nymphs play and the majesty of the ocean. The second subject is developed in three stages: a calm sea, a gathering storm, a thunderous wave. In the finale, the tempest moves away, peace returns, and the final bars suggest the infinite expanse of the sea. When I first heard the piece recorded by the Göteborg Symfoniker under Neeme Järvi, I immediately associated it with the picture of that infinite blueness.
“A devotee to beauty”
Sibelius conducted the premiere in 1914 at the Norfolk Music Festival in Connecticut and critics praised the piece as “the finest evocation of the sea … ever … produced in music”. The New York Tribune, once the largest daily paper published in New York, wrote at the time: “[T]he new composition […] is fresh and vital, full of imagination and strong in climax. Extremists will probably deplore the fact that the composer is still a respecter of form, still a devotee of beauty, still a believer in the potency of melody; but this is rather a matter for congratulation than regret. […] Mr. Sibelius is a fine musical constructionist, an eloquent harmonist and a fine colorist despite his fondness for dark tints.”
I am aware that musicologists struggle with the term “impressionistic music”, but I will not hesitate to use it for Sibelius’ “Oceanides” or Debussy’s “La Mer” or Ravel’s “Une Barque sur l’Océan”. All three composers and several more represented sensory elements linked to the sea: its movements, the reflection of light, the violence of foaming waves, the delicate rippling of a calm sea, the clarity of the air, the gentle, cooling effect of the sea breeze – impressions!
© Charles Thibo