Listening to the National Symphony Orchestra’s rendition of The Sea—to use an odd but apt comparison—is like hearing an Impressionist painting. Composer Frank Bridge surveys in sound the motion, the interplay of light and darkness, and the rich colors of the ocean in a way reminiscent of a landscape by Monet, Renoir, or even Cézanne. The varying timbre of each of the suite’s four movements evokes a different aspect of the sea’s mighty character. Admittedly, Bridge is one of the lesser-known English composers, but The Sea is proof enough that he is worthy to be numbered among his more famous contemporaries, such as Ralph Vaughn Williams, Edward Elgar, and Gustav Holst.
An essential element of the piece’s success lies in the grandeur and immensity of its subject. Something wells up in a man at the sight of the sea, at the sight of nothing but water stretching to the very horizon, water that gently glimmers in the sun’s silver light and shifts with the passage of the rolling waves. By its very nature the ocean inspires wonder and, therefore, a certain humility. Bridge communicates this effect brilliantly, particularly in the triumphant theme that both introduces and concludes the suite.
The sea, like the sky or the mountains, functions as a natural symbol of God. In its immensity, it suggests infinity; in its crashing waves and violent storms, it signifies power; in its terrible depth and darkness, it evokes mystery and incomprehensibility; in sustaining such a multitude of creatures, it is a reflection of the Principle of all life. The sea represents with marvelous facility the Lord of heaven and earth: infinite, mysterious, omnipotent, the source of all that is.
Struck by the grandeur of the sea, the believer cries out in the words of St. Catherine, “O abyss! O eternal Godhead! O deep sea! What more could you have given me than the gift of your very self?” For those who would listen, Bridge’s work is not only a marvelous evocation of the awesome impact of the sea; it is also what can only be described as a theological meditation in sound.
Image: Claude Monet, Shadows on the Sea
For a recording a of The Sea conducted by Bridge himself, click here.