Sea Pictures

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Sea Pictures, Op. 37 is a song cycle by Sir Edward Elgar consisting of five songs written by various poets. It was set for contralto and orchestra, though a distinct version for piano was often performed by Elgar. Many mezzo-sopranos have sung the piece.

The songs are:[1]

Much of the vocal line of the first song, "Sea Slumber Song," is heard again in other parts of the cycle; most notably, the second stanza is heard again almost in its entirety as part of the finale.


Elgar composed the piece on his 1894 Broadwood Square piano while residing at Birchwood Lodge, Great Storridge in Herefordshire. The songs were originally written in high keys for a soprano voice, but transposed to lower keys for the orchestral version, largely at the request of the contralto Clara Butt.[citation needed] The songs were composed in July 1899 (apart from "In Haven (Capri)", which was a reworking of his 1897 "Love alone will stay").[2]

The premiere was on 5 October 1899 at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival with Elgar himself conducting and Clara Butt singing, dressed as a mermaid.[2] On 7 October, Clara Butt gave the first London performance at St. James's Hall, with Elgar at the piano. Nearly two weeks later, on 20 October, Butt performed it for Queen Victoria at Balmoral.

Until August 1900, Elgar's songs had been published by Novello: but Elgar had a disagreement with them, and from then his songs, including "The Pipes of Pan" and Sea Pictures were published by Boosey & Hawkes, who bought the copyright for £50, with a small royalty per copy of the songs published separately.

Sea Pictures was also published in the following languages:

  • German: See-Bilder with words by Dr. Wilhelm Henzen
  • French: Marines with words by George Petilleau.

Other versions[edit]

While the cycle is heard most often in its canonical form for contralto and symphony orchestra, it can also be performed as a work for voice and piano, and in recent years some sopranos have take up the work using Elgar's original keys.

In 2010, the British composer Donald Fraser made a version of Sea Pictures for SATB chorus and strings. The first recording of that version was made by the English Chamber Orchestra, Rodolfus Choir and conductor Kenneth Woods in Abbey Road Studios in 2013. Fraser's arrangement was hailed by Stephen Johnson in BBC Music Magazine as "beautifully realised, performed with warmth and understanding, and sympathetically recorded." [3]

Fraser has also made a version of the work for SATB chorus and large symphony orchestra.



  1. ^ Kennedy, p.344–345
  2. ^ a b Kennedy, p.101
  3. ^ Johnson, Stephen (July 2016). "Elgar arr. Fraser - Piano Quintet and Sea Pictures". BBC Music Magazine.
  4. ^ Kennedy, p.366[verification needed]


Further reading[edit]

  • Elgar, Edward Sea Pictures: A Cycle of Five Songs for Contralto with German translation by Dr. Wilhelm Henzen and French words by George Petilleau Boosey & Hawkes Ltd. (Sheet music with libretti)

External links[edit]