A Vision of the Sea

David Matthews (1943)

A Vision of the Sea 2013

3333 - 4331 - timp - perc(3) - harp - piano - strings

I live in London, but also have a house in Deal on the Kent coast, where I write much of my music. The house is within sound of the sea, and I daily observe its changing moods and colours. A Vision of the Sea is the third piece I have written influenced by this particular part of the English Channel. The title derives from an unfinished poem by Shelley, which describes a violent storm. There is no actual storm in my piece, but I liked the title, and chose two lines from the poem as an epigraph: Round sea-birds and wrecks, paved with Heaven’s azure smile, The wide world of waters is vibrating. The herring gull calls heard at the start are pervasive throughout the piece: as I was composing I could almost always hear them. And the view of the sea from Deal looks towards the Goodwin Sands, a notorious place for wrecks. A Vision of the Sea began with a small piano piece I wrote in 2012 called Cap Gris-Nez after the highest point of the French white cliffs, often visible from Deal. I was also thinking of Debussy finishing La mer in the Grand Hotel, Eastbourne and looking across the Channel towards France. I decided to open my symphonic poem with a transcription of the opening of Cap Gris-Nez, which evokes a calm sea and the sound of herring gulls. After this, the first main section suggests a gently moving sea, its initial violin theme growing out of the descending four-note phrase heard on high violins at the start of the introduction. This is followed by a substantial scherzo, which develops the material heard so far, and perhaps conjures the spirit of ‘Jeux de vagues’ from La mer without encroaching too much on Debussy’s inimitable sound-world. The scherzo overflows into a brief but forceful recapitulation of the first section: the sea demonstrating its full power. The stern chaconne that follows is also a metaphor for the power of the sea. It reaches a climactic chord and subsides into stillness. The last section of the piece begins with a portrait of a pre-dawn, calm seascape, ruffled only by herring gull cries. It leads to an evocation of sunrise, which, because Deal faces east, I have often observed on clear mornings. My sunrise is based on the sound of the sun as recorded by scientists at Sheffield University. As reported by Richard Grey, science correspondent of The Daily Telegraph, these are ‘musical harmonies produced by the magnetic field in the outer atmosphere of the sun. [The scientists] found that huge magnetic loops that have been observed coiling away from the outer layer of the sun’s atmosphere, known as coronal loops, vibrate like strings on a musical instrument.’ One particular recording had the interval of a rising fourth, C-F, against a sustained harmony of these two notes. It seemed uncannily appropriate – an Urmotiv – and I transferred these sounds to low strings, with a contrabassoon playing the almost inaudible low B underneath the C-F harmony, and gradually built up a climax. The piece ends with this lowest possible B (the basses with their C string tuned down), sounding together with the highest possible B on string harmonics: Shelley’s vibrating sea at one with the vibrations of the sun. A Vision of the Sea is dedicated to Sally Cavender, Performance Music Director of my publisher, Faber Music, in gratitude for her many years of dedicated promotion of my music, and also because, as a native of Whitstable, where the Thames Estuary meets the English Channel, she knows this sea as intimately as I do.

David Matthews

16.7.13, BBC Proms, London: BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/Juanjo Mena
23.9.13 BBC MediaCity, Salford: BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/Juanjo Mena
3rd doubling piccolo
3rd doubling cor anglais
3rd doubling bass clarinet
3rd contrabassoon
vibraphone, 2 tuned gongs, bell, clash cymbals, 3 suspended cymbals, sizzle cymbal, chinese cymbal, 2 rainsticks, maracas, tam-tam, bass drum