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A Silver Sea

Texts and music inspired by the waters around the British Isles, with readers Julian Glover and Eleanor Tomlinson. With Vaughan Williams, Ethel Smyth, Mendelssohn and John Ireland.

The waters around the British Isles have inspired artists, writers and composers for centuries. In this edition of Words and Music Julian Glover and Eleanor Tomlinson share the poetic responses alongside music by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Ethel Smyth, Felix Mendelssohn and John Ireland, the sum describing a journey around the British Isles.

1 hour, 15 minutes

Last on

Sun 22 Mar 2015 17:30

Music Played

Timings (where shown) are from the start of the programme in hours and minutes

  • 00:00

    John Ireland

    Sea Fever

    Performer: Thomas Allen, Roger Vignoles.
    • Hyperion 66165.
    • Tr1.
  • Frances Fyfield

    From the novel ‘Gold Digger’ read by Eleanor Tomlinson

  • 00:01

    Claude Debussy

    La Mer - II Jeux De Vagues

    Performer: Philharmonia Orchestra, Michael Tilson Thomas.
    • CBS Records MDK 44645.
    • Tr2.
  • John Keats

    From the poem ‘On the Sea’ - read by Julian Glover

  • Gerard Manley Hopkins

    From ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’ - read by Julian Glover and Eleanor Tomlinson

  • 00:05

    Benjamin Britten

    Four Sea Interludes, Op.33a: IV. Storm

    Performer: London Symphony Orchestra, Steuart Bedford.
    • Naxos.
    • Tr3.
  • Joseph Conrad

    From ‘The Mirror of the Sea’ - Memories and Impressions, read by Julian Glover.

  • 00:10

    Benjamin Britten

    Four Sea Interludes, Op.33a: II. Sunday Morning

    Performer: London Symphony Orchestra, Steuart Bedford.
    • Naxos.
    • Tr2.
  • Inshore Waters - Part 1/4

    An anti-clockwise list of British Inshore waters read by Eleanor Tomlinson and Julian Glover

  • Christina Rossetti

    Poem ‘By the Sea’ read by Eleanor Tomlinson

  • 00:14

    Scottish Pipe tune arr. Julie Fowlis

    Tha mo ghaol air aird a’ chuain / My Love’s on the High Seas

    Performer: Julie Fowlis.
    • SKYE SKYECD33.
    • Tr2.
  • My Love’s on the High Seas

    Verses 1 & 4 of My Love’s on the High Seas by Julie Fowlis read by Eleanor Tomlinson.

  • 00:17

    Peter Maxwell Davies

    Farewell to Stromness

    Performer: Peter Maxwell Davies.
    • Unicorn-Kanchana DKP(CD)9070.
    • Tr13.
  • Slate, Sea and Sky

    Poem by Norman Bissell read by Julian Glover

  • 00:20

    Michael Tippett

    Over the Sea to Skye - from Choral Images

    Performer: BBC Singers - 1956 Premier.
    • Signum Classics SIGCD092.
    • Tr11.
  • Kathleen Jamie - ‘The Glass’hulled Boat’

    Poem by Kathleen Jamie read by Eleanor Tomlinson

  • 00:24

    Felix Mendelssohn

    Overture ‘The Hebrides’ or Fingal’s Cave

    Performer: L’Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal, Charles Dutoit.
    • DECCA 417 541-2.
    • Tr6.
  • Inshore Waters - Part 2/4

    An anti-clockwise list of British Inshore waters read by Eleanor Tomlinson and Julian Glover

  • Nursery Rhyme - A Sailor went to sea, sea, sea!

    Nursery Rhyme read by Julian Glover and Eleanor Tomlinson.

  • 00:34

    Flanders and Swann

    Rockall - Verse 1

    Performer: The King’s Singers.
    • EMI EMC 3196.
    • Tr4.
  • Writing on a Plaque on the Island of Rockall

    Plaque read by Eleanor Tomlinson

  • 00:35

    Flanders and Swann

    Rockall - Verse 2

    Performer: The King’s Singers.
    • EMI EMC 3196.
    • Tr4.
  • Comment by Lord Kennet in 1971

    Read by Julian Glover

  • 00:36


    Ròin is Míolta Móra (Seals and Whales)

    Performer: Mary Ann Kennedy, Ruth Keggin, Eoghan Ó Ceannabháin.
    • Watercolour Music WCMCD059.
    • Tr2.
  • Inshore Waters - Part 3/4

    An anti-clockwise list of British Inshore waters read by Eleanor Tomlinson and Julian Glover

  • 00:38

    Francis Pott

    Sonata for Viola and Piano (Tooryn Vannin - The Towers of Man)

    Performer: Yuko Inoue, Francis Pott.
    • EM Records EMR CD028.
    • 3.
  • Norman Nicholson - ‘Seat to the West’

    Poem by Norman Nicholson read by Julian Glover.

  • 00:46

    Mansell Thomas,

    Y Môr'/ The Sea

    Performer: Bryn Terfel, Annette Bryn Parri.
    • Sain SCD9099.
    • Tr8.
  • Night and Morning by R.S.Thomas

    Poem read by Eleanor Tomlinson

  • 00:48

    John Rutter

    Suite for Strings - O Waly, Waly

    Performer: Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, John Rutter.
    • Universal Classics.
    • Tr9.
  • Dylan Thomas - Under Milkwood

    Extract with Captain Cat and Rosie Probert, read by EleanorTomlinson and Julian Glover.

  • 00:53

    Charles Villiers Stanford

    Songs of the Sea, Op.91 No 4 Homeward Bound

    Performer: Gerarld Finley, BBC National Chorus of Wales, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Richard Hickox..
    • Chandos.
    • Tr15.
  • Reasons at Trefusis Point by Julian May

    Poem read by Eleanor Tomlinson

  • 01:01

    Ethel Smyth

    Overture ‘The Wreckers’

    Performer: Scottish National Orchestra, Sir Alexander Gibson.
    • EMI.
    • Tr1.
  • Inshore Waters - Part 4/4

    An anti-clockwise list of British Inshore waters read by Eleanor Tomlinson and Julian Glover.

  • From ‘Moonfleet’ by J.Meade Falkner

    Extract from Chapter 18 ‘In the Bay’

  • From ‘On Dover Beach’ by Matthew Arnold

    Extract from Poem read by Eleanor Tomlinson.

  • 01:08

    Henry Wood

    From ‘Fantasia on British Sea Songs’

    Performer: BBC Symphony Orchestra, James Loughran.
    • BBC Rado Classics 1565691912.
    • Tr17.
  • 01:10

    Folk song

    Blow the Wind Southerly, British Songs

    Performer: Kathleen Ferrier.
    • DECCA.
    • Tr3.
  • From ‘Sea Fever’ by John Masefield

    Extract ‘Sea Fever’ read by Julian Glover and Eleanor Tomlinson.

  • 01:13

    John Ireland

    Sea Fever

    Performer: Thomas Allen, Roger Vignoles.
    • Hyperion 66165.
    • Tr1.

A Silver Sea or a circumnavigation of British inshore waters from Deal to Dover by way of the Highlands and Islands.

The seas that surround the British Isles have been a rich inspiration for composers and writers alike.  The variation in their moods from stormy to dazzling calm often provide ways into, or backdrop setting for, reflection and story. 

The idea of a journey or voyage isn’t a new one for ‘Words and Music’.  If this edition differs it is in the precision of the nautical ambition, to chart and describe a particular geographical route.

It begins, after John Masefield and John Ireland have invited us to take to the water, with a feisty Frances Fyfield heroine being lured to the sea to swim.  Her exhilaration and ‘freedom to scream’ is picked up by Debussy in the second movement of La Mer ‘Jeux De Vagues’ which he finished while staying at Eastbourne.   John Keats’ invitation to ‘feast on the Sea’ isn’t map specific but now, with the accompaniment of Benjamin Britten’s Storm from his Sea Interludes we regain our course finding ourselves ‘Dead to the Kentish Knock’ in Gerard Manley Hopkins dramatic sprung rhythm verse evocation of the ‘Wreck of the Deutschland’.  From playful waves to powerful, hurling force, this is the fickle sea that surrounds us and there’s no-one who captures that shift and change better than Britten.

 Away from wreck and ravage Joseph Conrad takes us into his world of onboard life in a passage from his autobiographical work ‘The Mirror of the Sea’.   Conrad finds in the sea, and perhaps more importantly in the ship, the attraction of routine picked up again by another of Britten’s Sea Interludes, this time ‘Sunday Morning’.

 To help navigation I’ve used an anti-clockwise list of the Inshore Sea areas starting from North Foreland and ending the journey with Selsey Bill and North Foreland once again.  Now we’re in the North Sea and Christina Rossetti ponders the ‘sheer miracles of loveliness’ which include, in a very Rossetti twist, salt.  It was tempting to dwell at the mouth of the Tyne or Tees, Wear or Tweed but our next music is a Scottish folksong by Julie Fowlis.  Providing a limited translation of the Gaelic breaks all sorts of rules but I wanted to include some of the gentle imagery as well as indulging in the beauty and clarity of the voice and song.

 Northward we go to the Isles beginning with Orkney and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies playing his own Farewell to Stromness.  I’ve heard it described as the portrait of the ferry and it certainly has a wonderful sense of effort and steady sea-bound progress while never losing its lilt.   Norman Bissell’s ‘Slate, Sea and Sky’ is as much and as little as needs to be said of these places on the rim of the world where ‘light changes everything’.

 Hard a port and round to Sir Michael Tippett’s arrangement of ‘Over the Sea to Skye’.  The composer never lets us forget that a Sea journey is rarely tranquil, but Kathleen Jamie’s ‘The Glass-hulled Boat’ is a moment of calm looking deep and directly down at the lost internal organs that are jellyfish.

 We’re heading south now although Mendelssohn was probably heading north on his journey to Staffa and Fingal’s Cave.  The manuscript of this music is held in the Bodleian Library along with records he took while on his journey to Scotland.  They suggest that the main theme was inspired more by the boat taking him than the Cave and causeway itself.

 Those of a nautical bent will be agonisingly aware that we veer horribly off course in heading, at this point, for Rockall.  I couldn’t resist.   Here it is celebrated in all its Gannet-infested splendour by Michael Flanders and Donald Swann with the help of the King’s Singers.  The reading is from a Plaque fixed to the rock and the grim observation of this desolate place was made by Lord Kennet.

 Back we come, squeezing between the coast of Northern Ireland and Cumbria, hearing, in a brand new recording, the voices of ‘Seals and Whales’ by Mary Ann Kennedy, Ruth Keggin, Eoghan Ó Ceannabháin.  The song is new but emerges from the Scots Gaelic tradition and is intended to be a haunting call from the Sea by those creatures threatened most by man.

 The Isle of Man provides another freshly minted piece, this time from the composer Francis Pott.  It’s the third movement of his Viola Sonata played here by the composer himself and Yuko Inoue. The first two movements were inspired by two towers on the Island but this, the last, in the words of the composer himself, ‘admits of no specific connection to a single place, and accordingly has no subtitle; but its primary content suggested itself during an afternoon walk in perfect weather to the coastal point opposite the so-called Calf of Man.’  Surely the feverish rhythms and syncopations speak of wind, sea and spray.

Over on the Cumbrian mainland Norman Nicholson looks out at the dazzle of the sea as the sun sets and wishes it to stay with him in the dark.  And then we’re down to the Welsh coast and a young Bryn Terfel singing ‘Y Mor’ by Mansell Thomas, the reflections of a beachcomber and observer of the seas ‘far horizons’.

 ‘Night and Morning’ by R.S.Thomas once again has the sea moving from one tempest torn extreme to sun slumbering other.  The water, as the following folksong tells us, is wide and things tend not to remain as stable as we might wish.  The version of ‘O Waly, Waly’ here is by John Rutter from his Suite for Strings.

 And so to the seas sailed by blind Captain Cat, the lynchpin of Dylan Thomas’ Llareggub town in Under Milk Wood.  Here he’s beguiled by his one true love, Rosie Probert, who wants him to remember that she saw the very best of him.  For all its Welshness I invited Eleanor, fresh from her role as Demelza Carne in Poldark, to give her Rosie a Cornish accent, the better to entice Captain Cat to remember and then forget. 

 The turn is now homeward and ‘Homeward Bound’ from Charles Villiers Stanford’s songs of the Sea captures that mood to perfection.

 ‘Reasons at Trefusis Point’ brings us to the Cornish coast and Julian May, now a BBC Radio Producer, playfully remembers his young self at the water’s edge and a brief confusion between the creatures of the land and the deep, ending with the beautiful image of a seal bounding away like a Labrador.

The Cornish theme continues with Ethel Smyth’s overture to her opera ‘The Wreckers’.  Again the sea is everywhere in its huge variety and her writing and subject invites the second shipwreck of our voyage, this time from the children’s novel ‘Moonfleet’.

 Rather than fetching up on Moonfleet beach, it’s to Dover we go and the words of Matthew Arnold hearing in the sea the steady and eternal notes of sadness.  The Proms very own humming chorus from Sir Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea Songs and the very best of Kathleen Ferrier calling for a Southerly wind bring us to shore and an echo and end of John Masefield’s Sea Fever.  The Fever has now worked itself out and the long, and I hope enjoyable, circumnavigational trick is over.

 Tom Alban


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