Elgar Spotting – Sea Pictures

I’m in the final days of rehearsals of Edward Elgar’s song-cycle Sea Pictures, Op 37, with contralto Elizabeth Hale Knox.

This will be our third collaboration performing Sea Pictures! We both are enjoying a chance to revisit the work, as we continually find new layers and twists.

I remain surprised, however, that our performance is the only one listed by the Elgar Society’s Performance Diary for this season, 2014-15.

I was even more surprised to see the Wikipedia page for “Orchestral Song” makes no mention of Elgar’s work!

Spotting the Orchestral Song-cycle

Sea Pictures was first performed on October 5, 1899 when Elgar was coming off his resounding international success with the recent premiere of Enigma Variations. Song-cycles (a set of songs grouped together to create a work) as large orchestrated works were rather unusual at this time. It is possible that English audiences had yet to hear an orchestral song-cycle.

Les nuits d'été song-cycle by Berlioz (1803 —1869) is often considered the first orchestral song-cycle. The songs were written in 1841, and fully orchestrated in 1856. Although single movements have been performed since then, I have yet to successfully track down its first performance as a complete orchestral song-cycle.

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) usually comes to mind for orchestral song-cycles; he wrote his first song-cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen ('Songs of a Wayfarer') in 1884-5. This was orchestrated in the 1890’s with the first performance in 1896, in Berlin. The first performance in England was 1927.

For Mahler, the 1890’s was full of song compositions, especially those from the poems collected in Des Knaben Wunderhorn ('The Youth's Magic Horn'). Mahler published a set for soprano or baritone and orchestra in 1905.

Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Deaths of Children) composed between 1901 and 1904, was first performed in Vienna in 1905. In England, the piano/voice version was first performed in 1913, the orchestral version not until 1924.

Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde ("The Song of the Earth") was first performed in Munich, in November 1911.

So much of Mahler’s song-cycle works appear after the premiere of Elgar’s Sea Pictures; this is especially so for British audiences.

Richard Strauss (1864-1949) is the other familiar orchestral song-cycle composer; the first performance of his Vier letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs) was in May 1950.

Elgar Spotting in Chicago

Performances of Elgar’s Sea pictures were quite numerous for the first years of the 20th century.  Here in Chicago, there were 17 performances between 1903 and 1932; then a large gap of 50 years. At this time, however, the singer who would become the “definitive” voice of this work appeared - Dame Janet Baker.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra performances of Elgar’s Sea Pictures

January 30 & 31, 1903
Theodore Thomas, conductor
Kirkby Lunn, contralto

April 29 & 30, 1904
Theodore Thomas, conductor
Muriel Foster, contralto

January 20 & 21, 1905
Frederick Stock, conductor
Muriel Foster, contralto

January 12 & 13, 1906
Frederick Stock, conductor
Kirkby Lunn, contralto

April 10 & 11, 1914
Frederick Stock, conductor
Clara Butt, contralto

February 11 & 12, 1921
Frederick Stock, conductor
Louise Homer, soprano

April 14 & 15, 1922
Frederick Stock, conductor
Sophie Braslau, contralto

January 16, 1932
Frederick Stock, conductor
Harriette Price, contralto

February 11 & 12, 1932
Frederick Stock, conductor
Muriel Brunskill, contralto

May 3, 4 & 6, 1984
Sir Georg Solti, conductor
Janet Baker, mezzo-soprano

Thirty-one years later – I am thrilled to offer another Elgar spotting for the song-cycle Sea Pictures!

Northwest Symphony Orchestra
March 22, 2015
Kim Diehnelt, conductor
Elizabeth Hale Knox, contralto

Resources for Sea Pictures

Have a listen to the infamous Dame Janet Baker!