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Life on the Ocean Wave

Poetry, music and readings reflecting on the nautical life, including words by Masefield, Melville, Homer and Hardy, and music by Britten, Mendelssohn, Purcell and Tom Waits. Read by Lesley Sharp and John Shrapnel.

1 hour, 15 minutes

Last on

Sun 19 Feb 2017 17:30

Music Played

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

  • 00:00

    Henry Purcell

    They that go down to the sea in ships (excerpt)

    Performer: David Thomas (bass), English Concert, directed by Simon Preston.
    • Archiv 4271242.
    • 5.
  • Amy Lowell

    Sea Shell, read by Lesley Sharp

  • Paul Laurence Dunbar

    A Sailor’s Song, read by John Shrapnel

  • 00:03

    Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

    The Sea and Sinbad’s ship (Sheherazade)

    Performer: Orchestra of the Kirov Theatre, St Petersburg, conducted by Valery Gergiev.
    • Philips 4708402.
    • 1.
  • George Gordon, Lord Byron

    Letter to his mother (excerpt), read by John Shrapnel

  • 00:07

    John Ireland

    Sea Fever

    Performer: Thomas Allen (baritone), Roger Vignoles (piano).
    • Hyperion CDA66165.
    • 1.
  • John Masefield

    Port of Holy Peter, read by John Shrapnel

  • 00:11

    Tom Waits

    Shore leave (excerpt)

    Performer: Tom Waits and band.
    • Island 5245192.
    • 12.
  • D.H. Rogers

    Homeward bound, read by John Shrapnel

  • 00:17

    Trad. English

    Blow the man down

    Performer: Harry H. Corbett and chorus.
    • Topic TSCD464.
    • 5.
  • Percy Bysshe Shelley

    Letter to John Gisborne (excerpt), read by John Shrapnel

  • 00:20

    Maurice Ravel

    Une barque sur l'ocean (Miroirs)

    Performer: Jean-Efflam Bavouzet.
    • MDG60411902.
    • 10.
  • Homer, translated by George Chapman

    The Odyssey (excerpt), read by John Shrapnel

  • 00:30

    Benjamin Britten

    Storm (Peter Grimes)

    Performer: Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, conducted by Benjamin Britten.
    • Decca 4256592.
    • 5.
  • Hermann Melville

    Far-off shore, read by Lesley Sharp

  • 00:34

    Trad. English

    Blow the wind southerly

    Performer: Kathleen Ferrier (contralto).
    • Decca 4582702.
    • 1.
  • George Darley

    The Sea-ritual, ready by Lesley Sharp

  • 00:37

    Charles Dibdin

    Tom Bowling

    Performer: Roderick Williams (baritone), Iain Burnside (piano). Music Arranger: Benjamin Britten. Performer: Iain Burnside.
    • Naxos 8.572600.
    • 22.
  • Jerome K. Jerome

    Three men in a boat (excerpt), read by John Shrapnel

  • 00:44

    Arthur Sullivan

    When I was a lad (HMS Pinafore)

    Performer: Richard Suart (tenor), Orchestra and Chorus of Welsh National Opera, conducted by Charles Mackerras.
    • Telarc CD-80374.
    • 13.
  • Edward Lear

    The Jumblies, read by Lesley Sharp

  • 00:50

    Chris Wood

    Turtle soup

    Performer: Chris Wood and band.
    • R.U.F. RUFCD012.
    • 9.
  • Herman Melville

    Moby-Dick (excerpt), read by John Shrapnel

  • 00:59

    Trad. English

    The Greenland Whale Fishery

    Performer: The Watersons.
    • Topic TSCD472.
    • 2.
  • Thomas Hardy

    The Convergence of the twain (Lines on the loss of the Titanic), read by Lesley Sharp

  • 01:03

    Felix Mendelssohn

    Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt (Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage) (excerpt)

    Performer: London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner.
    • LSO Live LSO0775.
    • 2.
  • Alfred, Lord Tennyson

    Ulysses (excerpt), ready by Lesley Sharp

Producer's Note

It should be easy shouldn’t it? So much poetry and prose, so many songs and shanties, such a wealth of material to celebrate the way we used to get around the world in the thousands of years before trains, planes and cars came along. And with Britain’s long tradition of naval prowess firing the imaginations of English-speaking scribblers and songsters of all competencies, there wasn’t much chance that I’d be left rifling around for content.

Perhaps, indeed, there is too much, even after the firm demarcation has been made that this programme is not about the sea, but about people sailing around on it. For I’m only too conscious of how much has had to be left out of my allocated 75 minutes: there is, for instance, no Hornblower or Patrick O’Brian, no gallant sea-battles or Ancient Mariners, no Viking sagas or Renaissance explorers, no idyllic South Sea sojourns, no pirates and no sea-monsters.

In the end, I have chosen music and words that deal with certain more or less inevitable aspects of sea travel: setting out, returning home, suffering rough weather, getting bored, feeling sea-sick, dreading a watery grave. The anticipatory excitement of a sea voyage is stoked in poems by Amy Lowell and Paul Laurence Dunbar, in Rimsky-Korsakov’s rolling portrait of Sinbad in his ship and in John Ireland’s setting of Masefield’s famous Sea Fever. That such a trip may not always live up to expectation is shown in Masefield’s ‘Port of Holy Peter’ and the agonising homesickness and ennui of Tom Waits’s Shore leave. And the bawdy joys of the homeward journey are depicted in DH Rogers’s ‘Homeward Bound’. 

The terrors of the storm are evoked in a rollicking psalm-setting by Purcell, a snatch of Chapman’s Homer and Britten’s frantic orchestral interlude from Peter Grimes, while a possible aftermath is shown in sombre poems by Herman Melville and George Darley, and in one of the loveliest English 18th-century melodies, Charles Dibdin’s Tom Bowling.   

Two celebrations of less enthusiastic sailors by Jerome K. Jerome and Gilbert and Sullivan are followed by Edward Lear’s delightful and unexpectedly expert mariners, the Jumblies. Folksinger-songwriter Chris Wood’s homage to Darwin reminds us that voyages of discovery can open up the intellect as well as the world. And if there are no sea-battles, we still get to see Captain Ahab wrestling in spirit with Moby-Dick, while Hardy describes the Titanic encountering its own cold-hearted nemesis in ‘Convergence of the twain’.

We end, however, on a note of optimism, as Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage returns us home once more, and a beautiful passage from Tennyson’s Ulysses transforms the act of setting to sea into a vision of hope for a better world. And we could all do with that.    

Lindsay Kemp


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