Obscure Music Monday: Smyth's Three Moods of the Sea

Dame Ethel Mary Smyth DBE (April 22,1858 - May 8, 1944) was an English composer and member of the women's suffrage movement. The fourth of eight children, Smyth showed a keen interested in music as a career. Her father, a major general in the Royal Artillery, was not particularly supportive, though that didn't stop her from pursuing music anyway. Smyth studied privately, and then attended the Leipzig Conservatory. She wrote orchestral and choral works, chamber pieces, operas, and works for piano.  Sadly deafness brought her musical career to an end, but between 1919 and 1940, she found herself an author, writing ten successful books.

Three Moods of the Sea is written for voice and piano, based on poems by Arthur Symons. In the first movement, Requies, the piano starts with a dotted eighth-sixteen-eighth note theme that is highly Impressionistic with its whole tone scale intervals. The piano part gives a lulling movement to the piece while the vocal line sits calmly above it. The mood gets slightly more tumultuous when the piano part moves to 32nd notes, but the movement soon returns to its original theme.

O is it death or life that sounds
Like something strangely known
In this subsiding out of strife,
This low sea monotone?

A sound scarce heard through sleep
Murmurs as the August bees
That fill the forest hollows deep
About the roots of trees.

O is it death or life, or is it
Hope or memory
That quiets all things with this breath
Of the eternal sea?

In the second movement, Before the Squall, a tremolo in the piano starts the work off and continues throughout, musically depicting the rising wind.

The wind is rising on the sea,
The windy white foam-dancers leap;
And the sea moans uneasily,
And turns to sleep, and cannot sleep.

Ridge after rocky ridge uplifts,
Wild hands, and hammers at the land,
Scatters in liquid dust, and drifts
To death among the dusty sand.

On the horizon's nearing line,
Where the sky rests, a visible wall,
Grey in the offing, I divine,
The sails that fly before the squall.

The final movement, After Sunset, is peaceful and calming; Smyth demonstrates yet again her skill in setting poems to music.

The sea lies quieted beneath
The after-sunset flush
That leaves upon the heaped grey clouds
The grape's faint purple blush.

Pale, from a little space in heaven
Of delicate ivory,
The sickle-moon and one gold star
Look down upon the sea.

Here's a recording of this delightful work for you to enjoy!

Ethel Smyth: Kammermusik and Lieder Vol. 4

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