Book Review – ‘The Sea in the British Musical Imagination’ by Alexandra Wilson

By Alexandra Wilson, published November 2020


British cultural responses to the sea – whether literary or visual – have, in recent years, become the subject of lively scholarly investigation. Eric Saylor and Christopher M. Scheer’s The Sea in the British Musical Imagination is, however, the first dedicated study of British musical works on a nautical theme. This book covers a diverse range of types of work, from symphonies to sea shanties. Some of the more obvious works that the authors might have chosen, such as HMS ‘Pinafore’, Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture or Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea Songs are mentioned only in passing (if at all), whereas the book’s contributors devote detailed attention to such unusual repertory as Arnold Bax’s Sea Symphony, Peter Maxwell Davies’s Antarctic Symphony and the music of Welsh composer Grace Williams.

Saylor’s and Scheer’s book seeks to be a study in cultural identity, examining how composers have sought to construct a sense of ‘Britishness’, or (and the distinction is an important one) had their works interpreted in such a way. It forms part of a marked rise of interest in British music on the part of American scholars over the last decade (all but two of the 13 contributors are based in American universities.) This is, then, very much a view of Britishness – and in some cases specifically ‘Englishness’ or ‘Scottishness’ – from ‘across the pond’, which occasionally results in a rather rose-tinted view of a charming British quaintness, as evidenced by the paeans of praise to the Radio 4 Shipping Forecast in both the introduction and afterword …

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Subjects include: Art & Music

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