The Mermaid Singer and Her Song

Clara Butt, 1897

Clara Butt, 1897

The not-so-young composer was working on the next piece after the work that made him a national star. The singer was an up-and-coming contralto. At the 1899 Norwich Festival, Edward Elgar unveiled his new song cycle, Sea Pictures, with the 27-year old Clara Butt as singer. According to Elgar in letters to friends, Butt ‘dressed like a mermaid,’ and also ‘sang really well.’

Clara Butt was an impressive 6’ 2” (1.8 m) tall. As a singer, she had a very wide vocal range, from C below middle C to high A. In her professional debut in 1902, her abilities were noted by the music critic for The World, George Bernard Shaw, who predicted a great career ahead of her. Her career centred around recitals and concerts – her operatic career was extremely limited, singing in only 2 productions of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice (one at the Royal College of Music as a student and the other in 1920 at Covent Garden).

She impressed the French composer Camille Saint-Saëns when he heard her in Paris and the English composer Edward Elgar, who wrote his Sea Pictures for her voice.

Edward Elgar, c. 1900

Edward Elgar, c. 1900

After the triumph of his Enigma Variations in June 1898, Elgar was commissioned by the Norwich Festival to write a work for Clara Butt. The Sea Pictures is based around 5 poems by Roden Noel, Alice Elgar, Elizabeth Barret Browning, Richard Garnett, and Adam Lindsay Gordon. All the poets were English except for the Australian Gordon.

The five poems all have sea references, but it is the orchestra that forms the background for the work that truly brings it alive. From the opening of No. 1, the Sea Slumber-Song, where we have the undulating ocean at the beginning and then the colours of the depths being revealed through the skilful orchestration, Elgar sets the scene.

Elgar: Sea Pictures, Op. 37: I. Sea Slumber-Song (Sarah Connolly, mezzo-soprano; Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra; Simon Wright, cond.)
Alice Elgar late in life

Alice Elgar late in life

The second song, In Haven (Capri), which was a revision of an earlier poem entitled “Love Along Will Stay.” For the song cycle, Alice Elgar reordered the verses and accentuated the sea imagery. The title from Capri refers to a visit the poet made to the island before her marriage. The text refers to storms and beating waves, but it is in the haven of Capri that the lovers in the poem are safe.

Elgar: Sea Pictures, Op. 37: II. In Haven (Capri) (Sarah Connolly, mezzo-soprano; Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra; Simon Wright, cond.)
Elizabeth Barret Browning wrote Sabbath Morning at Sea in 1839. The religious poem uses the despair of a sailor who awakes to the glory of the world and is inspired to look higher, to heaven, where there is ‘an endless Sabbath morning,’

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Elgar: Sea Pictures, Op. 37: III. Sabbath Morning at Sea (Sarah Connolly, mezzo-soprano; Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra; Simon Wright, cond.)
The most-often performed song in the cycle is the fourth, Where Corals Lie. The poet, Richard Garnett had published the poem in 1859. Each verse setting adds another instrument doubling the vocal line: first flute and clarinet (v. 1), then solo cello (v. 2), and cello (v. 4). It is verse 3 that is the most difficult for the singer – there are places where it is to the singer, not the conductor, to set the rhythm and speed – and it is that subtlety that makes each performance differ.

Elgar: Sea Pictures, Op. 37: IV. Where Corals Lie (Sarah Connolly, mezzo-soprano; Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra; Simon Wright, cond.)
The last movement opens with a storm that builds and crashes. The vocal line, too, builds like waves to crash on the shore. The swimmer of the title seems lost in the storm, looking for his lost love.

Elgar: Sea Pictures, Op. 37: V. The Swimmer (Sarah Connolly, mezzo-soprano; Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra; Simon Wright, cond.)
Repetition of themes from the first song, such as the opening rocking motion, helps to tie the cycle together musically. We end the cycle in a splash of water and wave and so Elgar made his second appearance in the world, never really to disappear again.

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