Published online by Cambridge University Press: 12 June 2021
IT IS DIFFICULT to describe how the sea has fired the imaginations of British composers, performers, and concert audiences without lapsing into clichés of the most hoary and timeworn sort. Yet the fact that such clichés exist (and indeed, that they are so difficult to avoid) also stands as testament to the pervasiveness of the sea – both as a subject and as a source of inspiration – throughout British musical history. A bevy of distinguished British artists, ranging from Henry Purcell and Arthur Sullivan to Benjamin Britten and Judith Weir, have taken it as their theme in both comic and serious works, cultivated and vernacular alike. The sea has formed an iconic backdrop to sailors’ shanties and pierside brass bands; has inspired deeply personal laments for lost loves and transcendent accolades to humanity's potential; has influenced the creation of symphonies and string trios, madrigals and motion picture scores, operas and orchestral songs. In short, few subjects have received as much attention from as many generations of British musicians, attesting to its significant place within the nation's creative soul.
Yet for all of its storied history and transcendent power, the sea also plays entirely prosaic and everyday roles in British life: it is a site of work and play, facilitates enough trade and transport to unite a kingdom (and for many years, sustain an empire), and functions as both a means of access to and a barrier against the rest of Europe. Every day, its effects are felt in hundreds of ways, large and small, that are closely integrated with a sense of national and cultural identity, and which transcend complex boundaries of time, place, class, and aesthetics. Small wonder, then, that the sea's profound impact on the British musical imagination can reside in even the most ordinary and banal of settings – for example, a governmentsponsored weather report.