Until 23 January 2021, Southampton’s John Hansard Gallery presents Seaside: Photographed, a major exhibition that examines the relationship between photographers, photography and the British seaside from the 1850s to the present day.
In a lovely collaboration, John Hansard Gallery approached Turner Sims Concert Hall Manager Kevin Appleby and asked him to produce an accompanying playlist with music inspired by the sea. Enjoy this auditory trip to the seaside – and get down to the Gallery to be inspired by this wonderful exhibition!
Read on to learn more about Kevin Appleby’s Seaside Playlist…
Natural landscapes, surroundings and experiences have provided inspiration, comfort and solace for artists, writers, and composers for centuries. In musical terms alone think of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons complete with storms and barking dogs, French composer Arthur Honegger’s Pacific 231 in which he wished to translate the visual experience of a speeding train, as well as its sounds, into the orchestral texture, and The Kinks’ Village Green Preservation Society, extolling the virtues of village life. But how have artists reflected the seaside, and more specifically the British seaside in their music?
Being approached to put together this playlist was the beginning of a fascinating journey, not only revisiting works and artists that I knew well and thought might be appropriate, but making many discoveries, sometimes via rather circuitous routes. The journey has also evoked in me memories of my own seaside experiences, from days out travelling by train to Essex seaside resorts such as Walton on the Naze, and Clacton on Sea, to family holidays to Felixstowe in Suffolk (‘The Garden Resort of the East Coast’ according to one of its tourist guides from the 1970s); from ‘new’ destinations Deal and Hastings with summer shows in grand theatres, to trips to north Norfolk to wallow in the lengthy beaches, coastline-hugging roads, and vast open skies of the county of my birth.
Dip into this selection and you will hear music (and words) of joy and melancholy, energy and stillness reflecting locations from Blackpool to Cornwall, and from Wales in the west to Norfolk in the east. There is a healthy dose of Southern associations, including Bournemouth, Portsmouth and Southsea, and Southampton. And reflecting the fact that the seaside continues to be an inspiration to the present day the music spans more than a century, from the late 1800s to 2020 itself: Neil Cowley’s poignant contribution was only premiered at the end of November. If nothing else it proves that regardless of what our relationship with the seaside is it has the power to inspire us, much as the wonderful exhibition experience which the John Hansard Gallery is bringing to us does too.
Background to the playlist selection
Where better to begin than with the natural sound of the sea, waves lapping at the shore and seagull cries heard overhead. From the sound of the sea we move to perhaps the most famous seaside song of all: Oh I do Like to Be Beside the Seaside. Reginald Dixon, who performs it here, was official organist at Blackpool’s Tower Ballroom for 40 years and renowned for his concerts for locals and holidaymakers alike. The tune is synonymous with the summer and beach activities, as much for the sound of the instrument on which it is played – the Wurlitzer organ – as for the notes themselves.
From there we move to Sir Edward Elgar’s Sea Pictures, premiered at the Norwich Triennial Festival in 1899. Each of the work’s five movements offers a different response to the ocean, and its Norwich performance, conducted by the composer, was notable for the fact that the soloist – renowned singer Dame Clara Butt – performed in a dress which represented a mermaid. The first movement, titled Sea Slumber Song, with words by Roden Noel, references the Kynance Cove, described by tourist website Visit Cornwall as ‘probably the most photographed and painted location in Cornwall.’
British saxophonist John Surman has been a regular visitor to Turner Sims over many years, premiering two of his ECM Records album releases – Rain on the Window, and Saltash Bells – at the concert hall. Much of his music is influenced by his upbringing in the South West of England, and his track Marazion, taken from his album The Road to St Ives is named after a town whose website declares: ‘Marazion in Cornwall is a great place to visit at any time of the year! The home of the iconic St Michael’s Mount. Two fabulous beaches. Magical sea views. Friendly smiles and welcomes. Great Cornish pubs. Great places to stay. And great fun for the kids. All available right here in the far west of Cornwall.’
Writer and poet John Betjeman is synonymous with Cornwall, and his poem Seaside Golf introduces one of the various pursuits that can be enjoyed as part of a day out on the coast. From the far southwest to the England’s furthest easterly point. Benjamin Britten, who looms large in the exhibition and also in this playlist, was born in Lowestoft, and described his Holiday Diary as ‘impressions of a boy’s seaside holiday, in pre-war days’. From Night, which Britten describes as a ‘cool, starry seascape’, we move neatly to four-piece Portico Quartet and the title track of their 2008 Mercury Prize nominated debut album Knee-Deep in the North Sea. Although taking as its starting the same sea as Britten was inspired by the origins of the tune are very different. According to Portico Quartet’s percussionist and hang player Nick Mulvey, the idea for the tune came from a rave in North Norfolk, where he found himself at the age of 18: ‘we were a bunch of kids with our mates on the beach, and I was literally knee deep in the north sea.’ Portico Quartet have been regular visitors to Turner Sims over the years, with two of their members – sax player Jack Wyllie, and bass player Milo Fitzpatrick – growing up locally and being members of Southampton Youth Jazz Orchestra.
Another track from a debut album – Grey Stone taken from folk singer Emily Portman’s 2011 release The Glamoury – reveals different personal emotions and experiences from the starting point of a popular seaside pastime. Skimming stones achieved fifth place in the National Trust’s list of ‘50 things to do before you are 11¾’, and is also the name of paint colour No 241 in Farrow and Ball’s collection.
Seaside pastimes are evident throughout the centrepiece of the playlist, which sees a return to Benjamin Britten, this time in his guise as a composer of music for film. The Way to the Sea is a glorious soundtrack to a film from 1936 sponsored by Southern Railway. Its first half is a whistlestop historical depiction of the South Coast beginning in AD286 with the coming of the Romans, and proceeding via Henry VIII and Lord Nelson to 1935 with the new trainline ready for passengers. The second half tells the story of the electrification of the railway line from London to Portsmouth, and a day trip to the seaside. What makes the film special is not only Britten’s wonderful musical depictions but the words which poet W H Auden provides for the film’s closing section, musing on the reasons why the hundreds of passengers are journeying to the seaside for a day out. If you are inspired to discover more from this artistic pairing check out another 1936 film Night Mail, this time focussing on the postal service.
From Portsmouth we move along the coast to Bournemouth where the first performance of Arnold Bax’s Tintagel was given on 20 October 1921 by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. One of Bax’s most popular works, its inspiration, a vision of the sea interspersed with a historical perspective, was outlined by the composer in his own note:
This work is only in the broadest sense programme music. The composer’s intention is simply to offer a tonal impression of the castle-crowned cliff of (now sadly degenerate) Tintagel, and more especially of the long distances of the Atlantic as seen from the cliffs of Cornwall on a sunny but not windless summer day. The literary and traditional associations of the scene also enter into the scheme. The music opens, after a few introductory bars, with a theme given out on the brass which may be taken as representing the ruined castle, now so ancient and weather-worn almost to seem an emanation of the rock upon which it was built. This subject is worked to a broad diatonic climax, and is followed by a long melody for strings which may suggest the serene and almost limitless spaces of ocean. After a while a more restless mood begins to assert itself as though the sea were rising, bringing with a new sense of stress thoughts of many passionate and tragic incidents in the tales of King Arthur and King Mark and others among the men and women of their time. A wailing chromatic figure is heard and gradually dominates the music until it finally assumes a shape which will recall to mind one of the subjects of the first Act of Tristan and Isolde (whose fate was of course intimately connected with Tintagel). Soon after this there is a great climax suddenly subsiding, followed by a passage which will perhaps convey the impression of immense waves slowly gathering force until they smash themselves upon the impregnable rocks. The theme of the sea is heard again, and the piece ends as it began with a picture of the castle still proudly fronting the sun and wind of centuries.
Childhood memories come from Welsh-born composer Grace Williams whose Sea Sketches are dedicated to her parents, and were inspired by memories of the sea on her beloved Glamorganshire coast. Composed in 1944 whilst living in London she decided to move back to her home in South Wales the following year, declaring ‘I don’t want to stay in London – I just long to get home and live in comfort by the sea’. In 1947, aged 41, she returned to a self-contained flat in her parents’ house, remaining in Barry for the rest of her life.
English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams’ relationship with the sea manifested itself principally through his work for choir and orchestra entitled A Sea Symphony from which we hear the tranquil second movement On the Beach at Night Alone, with words by American poet Walt Whitman. Needing time to focus on its composition Vaughan Williams temporarily relocated to the seaside in Yorkshire, renting rooms and a piano to work on the sketches for a work initially titled The Ocean. His wife, Ursula Vaughan Williams, in her biography of the composer, recounts how he almost drowned while swimming alone off a rocky, deserted beach: a swift undercurrent held him away from shore; exhausted, he had resigned himself to his fate; a huge wave came in and washed him up onto the beach. (Ursula Vaughan Williams: RVW A biography of Ralph Vaughan Williams London: Oxford University Press, 1964 pp 68-69)
Yorkshire has two lighthouses, and the next track, an extract from Benedict Mason’s Lighthouses of England and Wales for large orchestra, the composer describes as ‘a guided tour around a chorus of the main English and Welsh lighthouse phases (as extant in the Trinity House Schedule of Lighthouses and Fog Signal Characters and Equipment), from the Solway Firth to the Farne Islands.’ Composed in 1987 following research into and at all the main Trinity House Lighthouses in the country Mason explains ‘A distant lighthouse signal is the gentlest bleep on the horizon. Close to, is a huge lumbering beam that swings past, appearing to speed up as it comes towards you and slow down after it has gone past. This is translated into sound as its most literal when the conductor makes a semi-circular sweeping gesture across the orchestra, which cues all the players in domino effect as the conductor’s arm passes the line of vision.’
From real to imagined coastline via the literature of Charles Dickens. One of the most important locations that David Copperfield travels to as a child and as an adult is Yarmouth in Norfolk, home to the faithful Peggotty family house on the beach. Dickens visited Great Yarmouth in 1849, staying two days at the Royal Hotel on the town’s Parade. He liked to take long walks for recreation particularly at seaside resorts and during the visit to Yarmouth he walked to Lowestoft and back, a round trip of some 20 miles. The two extracts in the playlist come from film scores written almost 50 years apart: by Malcolm Arnold for the 1970 film directed by Delbert Mann, and Christopher Willis for the 2019 film directed by Armando Iannucci. And further contrast comes from the way in which Yarmouth itself is depicted. Clara Peggotty in the novel describes the town as ‘the finest place in the universe’, whilst Dickens called it ‘The strangest place in the wide world.’
Personal experiences of the sea lead in to musical ones and the second outing for Oh I do Like to Be Beside the Seaside, this time sung by Mark Sheridan. A music hall performer and one of the most well-known entertainers in the early 20th century, Sheridan first recorded the song in 1909. His catalogue of song hits also included What A Game It Is! Wow! Wow!, They All Walk the Wibbly-Wobbly Walk, and Who Were You With Last Night?, which he recorded in 1912, and featured in his first appearance at Southampton’s Palace Theatre in 1913. Reviewing the performance, theatre newspaper The Era declared ‘making his first appearance at the Palace, Southampton, [he] is scoring all along the line. [The song] is already being whistled all over the southern seaport…the genial Mark is bringing gust to the Palace, for the building is packed out at every performance.’ Until its bombing in 1940 The Palace was located at 117 Above Bar, a short walk from the John Hansard Gallery.
There is cheerfulness in the next selection too, albeit with an undercurrent of impending doom. Stephen Sondheim’s song By the Sea from his musical Sweeney Todd depicts the idyllic life which Mrs Lovett envisages with Todd when they retire together to the seaside. The grim climax of the story is far off in this exuberant and cheeky number.
Whether Brighton was Mrs Lovett’s destination is unknown but it was the birthplace of composer Frank Bridge, whose orchestral piece The Sea remains one of his most popular works. Completed in Eastbourne (the same location where French composer Claude Debussy had completed his own orchestral work La Mer six years earlier), its impact was not only felt by an audience hearing it for the first time at a BBC Prom concert in 1912, but by a 10 year old Benjamin Britten. He recalled being ‘knocked sideways’ on hearing it at a concert in Norwich in 1924. Bridge’s programme note for the premiere outlines the inspiration for the music:
Seascape paints the sea on a summer morning. From high drifts is seen an expanse of waters lying in the sunlight. Warm breezes play over the surface. Sea-Foam froths among the low-lying rocks and pools along the shore, playfully not stormy. Moonlight paints a calm sea at night. The first moonbeams are struggling to pierce through dark clouds, which eventually pass over, leaving the sea shimmering in full moonlight. Finally, a raging Storm. Wind, rain and tempestuous seas, with the lulling of the storm an allusion to the first number [movement] is heard and which may be regarded as a sea-lover’s dedication to the sea.
Bridge was Benjamin Britten’s only composition teacher, and the final piece in the playlist by Britten – his Four Sea Interludes – can appropriately be seen as a direct descendant of The Sea in its evocations of the water at various stages of the day. The Interludes are taken from Britten’s opera Peter Grimes, set in a Suffolk village and telling the story of a fisherman who is increasingly outcast from his community with tragic consequences. The seaside town of Aldeburgh, where Britten lived for much of his life and where he created in 1948 the Aldeburgh Festival, marked the centenary of his birth in 2013 with a fully staged performance of the opera on the town’s beach. Artist Maggi Hambling’s sculpture The Scallop, to be found on the Aldeburgh shore, celebrates Benjamin Britten, and features within it a line from the opera.
Three songs to follow, two with Southampton connections. John Ireland’s setting of English Poet Laureate John Masefield’s Sea Fever remains one of his most well-known works and was composed in 1911, nine years after the poem was published. The University of Southampton’s Music Department has, for the last four years, hosted the John Ireland Prize for the best student performance of one of the composer’s works.
By way of complete contrast, Seaside Shuffle, a cheery depiction of a daytrip to Brighton, dates from 1972 and was a one-off hit for the group Terry Dactyl and the Dinosaurs, in reality a blues band called Brett Marvin and the Thunderbolts. The song’s writer, and a member of the band, was Jona Lewie, who found later fame with his Christmas offering, Stop the Cavalry. Writing about the song in 2011 Jona Lewie explained It became a big hit, getting to number 2 in the UK charts in August 1972 and staying there for 3 weeks. It won a ‘Silver Disc’ for having sold more than a quarter of a million copies. In addition a foreign version of the song went on to sell a million copies in Germany! Ironically all three separate original performances of Seaside Shuffle on ‘Top Of The Pops’ got destroyed – an inexperienced BBC tape operator had been erasing original performances from the master tape for some 8 months thinking he was doing the BBC a favour by saving on tape costs which were very expensive in those days.
No such challenges for British jazz pianist and vocalist, and longtime resident of Hastings in East Sussex, Liane Carroll whose Seaside album was released in 2015. The title track was written by Joe Stilgoe, a fellow singer, and an alumnus of both Taunton’s College and the University of Southampton, where he studied Music.
The final track on the playlist is also the newest. Premiered in November 2020 as the first single from his forthcoming new album Neil Cowley‘s track She Lives in Golden Sands is a reminder of the power of the sea, and the seaside to evoke memories of the past. Neil writes:
It directly relates to a moment when I was sitting on the beach at Climping [West Sussex], completely alone, on a beautiful summer’s day and the sun was twinkling so brightly on the sea. And I swore for a moment that my late mother was with me in the essence of that moment.