- The Sea in the British Musical Imagination ed. by Eric Saylor, Christopher M. Scheer
Since the year 2000 there has been a wave of musicological literature exploring the relationship between music and landscape, music and geography, and music and nature. Recently, this field of research has been increasingly subsumed under the umbrella term “ecomusicology,” defined by Aaron S. Allen as the study of “the relationships of music, culture, and nature; . . . the study of musical and sonic issues, both textual and performative, as they relate to ecology and the environment” (Aaron S. Allen, “Eco musicology: Ecocriticism and Musicology,” Journal of the American Musicological Society 64, no. 2 [Summer 2011]: 392). As part of this wider movement toward the “greening” of musicology, examinations of the interconnections between music and nature have emerged as a prominent strand of British music studies in the last fifteen years. While this line of research has focused predominantly on music inspired by landscapes, an equally prominent and persistent theme in British music of the past five hundred years has been the sea and its various maritime and symbolic [End Page 707] associations. Eric Saylor and Christopher M. Scheer thus remark with some surprise that “no one had bothered to take up the topic” of their edited volume, The Sea in the British Musical Imagination, since they first conceived of the idea fifteen years ago (p. xviii).
Framed by the editors’ introduction and an afterword by Jenny Doctor, the book contains twelve chapters distributed equally among three broadly themed sections: “The Sea as Geography,” “The Sea as Profession,” and “The Sea as Metaphor.” While the editors “make no claim to exhaustive coverage” (p. 8) and apologize for the absence of discussions of Frederick Delius’s Sea Drift, Ethel Smyth’s The Wreckers, and other well-known British musical evocations of the sea, the book covers a diverse range of approaches, repertoires, and practices spanning the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries. Nonetheless, the majority of the chapters focus on “works” of some kind, whether these be symphonies and songs or nautical melodramas and radio plays.
The introduction outlines the book’s three themes by way of a discussion of BBC Radio 4’s Shipping Forecast, which Saylor and Scheer align with “other distinctive” British “cultural hallmarks” including, apparently, “Saturday tea, Doctor Who, and Test match cricket” (p. 4). Alyson McLamore’s chapter on “Maritime Music and National Identity in Eighteenth-Century Britain” follows the introduction and is the first of a number of chapters in the book to examine naval themes in instrumental and vocal music, primarily in relation to ships and sailors. McLamore effectively demonstrates how, from the contradictory representations of the sailor as the epitome of Britishness on the one hand and as a “ ‘foreigner in his own country’ ” on the other (Isaac Edward Land, “Domesticating the Maritime: Culture, Masculinity, and Empire in Britain, 1770–1820,” [PhD diss., University of Michigan, 1999], 6), there emerged a figure who was “believed to embody British virtue better than anyone” (p. 17). This heroic vision of the sailor was frequently celebrated in music at the end of the eighteenth century, and McLamore argues persuasively that such music played an important role in encouraging the British public’s support for the continuing expansion of maritime projects.
Musical portrayals of the British sailor are also the focus of chapter 6 by James Brooks Kuykendall, who contends that representations of sailors between 1875 and 1925 largely conformed to three distinct though sometimes overlapping “phases”: the “theatrical burlesque,” the “popular patriotic prototype,” and the “sophisticated ironic modernist trope” (p. 105). With some light musical and textual analysis, Kuykendall draws on a diverse range of repertory to illustrate each phase: a horn-pipe from W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s comic opera Ruddigore (1887) belongs to phase one; song cycles by Charles Villiers Stanford exemplify phase two; and, in phase three, William Walton’s eclectic orchestral overture Portsmouth Point (1925...