Water. It’s the stuff of life. It’s the stuff of art too. Paintings conjure the textures and colours of ponds and lakes; poetry turns water into a rich source of metaphor. But it is only music that can capture water’s movement, from surface ripples and choppy waves to the powerful tides that shift oceans. Biblical rivers in Handel’s oratorios and babbling brooks in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony saw musicians dipping their toes into the waters in the Baroque and Classical eras. But it was in the 19th century, with the blossoming of the orchestra, the rise of the piano and the outpouring of song, that composers started to weave rivers into the fabric of their music. They became symbols of journeys, even of entire countries.
Few composers have been as profoundly passionate about rivers as the outdoor-loving Edward Elgar. “I am still at heart the dreamy child who used to be found in the reeds by the Severn side with a sheet of paper trying to fix the sounds and longing for something very great,” Elgar reminisced in his sixties. That childhood was in Worcestershire, the county in which Elgar spent most of his life. He was born in 1857 in Lower Broadheath, near what he described as “the most beautiful river that ever was” – the Teme. Worcester was nearby, thriving thanks to the Worcester & Birmingham Canal, which opened in 1815, and the cathedral city’s enviable position on the Severn. This mighty river, the longest in England, inspired Elgar his whole life and in 1930, four years before his death, he composed his appealing Severn Suite.
Elgar had the rare gift of being able to turn his experiences into music. His good friend Dora Penny once described in a letter how she remembered Elgar improvising music that captured exactly a swift river, packed with fish, and a kingfisher. Those notes are lost to us now, but the vivid depictions in his 1889 orchestral masterpiece, the Enigma Variations – a colourful set of portraits of his friends – underscore the story’s truth. In the variation titled ‘G.R.S.’, Elgar perfectly sketches the amusing antics of his friend George Sinclair’s bulldog Dan, who tumbles into the River Wye, swims upstream and then clambers out with a bark. The Wye reappears in Elgar’s 1909 song The River, written after it flooded the fields near his Hereford home one Christmas. He turns it into a mythical event, the river “ancient, honoured, mighty, grand”.
Like his composing forebear William Sterndale Bennett – whose 1860s Symphony in G minor opens with a moody swirling figure, unmistakably watery – Elgar found rivers to be places for reflection and spiritual nourishment, necessary to his creativity. Are their curves and meanders echoed in Elgar’s undulating melodies, as author Jerrold Northrop Moore suggested? It’s not such a fanciful suggestion. Influence isn’t always obvious. Elgar’s passionate Violin Concerto of 1910, for instance, is ostensibly an abstract work. Yet the violinist WH Reed suggested that its three movements depict three rivers: the Thames, the Severn and the Wye.
The concerto’s gorgeous slow movement was written while Elgar was staying in The Hut at Bray, a fashionable house on the Thames. Reed visited Elgar to play the new concerto: “When we were tired of playing… we went off together, strolling about the riverbank, watching the small fish in the water and enjoying the quiet beauty of the place.” Elgar returned to Bray to write his Cello Concerto; decades later, in 1997, Sally Beamish also drew on the changing moods of water for her Cello Concerto The River. To build the piece, she uses the idea of a river as constant but always changing; each of its four movements elaborates on the same material in a different way.
Other composers used rivers to illustrate local and national pride. Alan Bush’s Nottingham Symphony of 1949 was written after the communist composer decided to “bring out a national character” in his music. Its emotional heart is a beautifully serene portrait of the River Trent. Just a few years later, Elizabeth Maconchy entered a composing competition to mark the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Her overture Proud Thames won: this evocative description of the Thames takes us from the gentle eddies of its West Country source to its glorious arrival in the capital. Quite different from the gentle, Turner-esque dawn portrait of the Thames that opens Vaughan Williams’s London Symphony; though perhaps its brass echoes Handel’s outdoorsy Water Music, played on barges on the Thames for George I’s entertainment.
It’s not always the mighty broad reaches that excite composers’ passions. Sometimes it is the smaller, gentler streams. Take Mendelssohn. The German composer visited the UK in 1829, sparking his famous Hebrides Overture with its deft sketches of rolling waves. On a trip to North Wales, where he stayed in Llangollen and near Holywell, he penned The Rivulet, a rippling Andante for solo piano. John Ireland also composed several watery keyboard miniatures, including The Towing Path (1918), Chelsea Reach (1917-20) and Amberley Wild Brooks (1918).
Of course, as inevitable as day and night, rivers spill out into the seas. And that’s a subject in itself. From Britten’s Suffolk-rooted Four Sea Interludes to the dramatic Cornish cliffs of Bax’s Tintagel, from Grace Williams’s atmospheric Sea Sketches to Vaughan Williams’s arresting Sea Symphony, a wealth of watery wonders awaits.