It’s the time of year when beaches open, outdoor concerts begin and for hundreds of men and women in the Navy the time to spend six days in New York City for Fleet Week. Nine ships have docked in New York Harbor to let their charges off the decks and on the town. Meanwhile, civilians can board the ships to see how sailors live on the seas. Celebrate the annual event by listening to our top five Naval-themed works of classical music:
1. Benjamin Britten’s great opera, Billy Budd, based on the Herman Melville story, examines the complex relationships between sailors and their commanding officers aboard a ship. Billy seals his fate the moment he waves goodbye to his previous vessel, the Rights of Man, and boards Captain Vere’s H.M.S. Indomitable. The young stammering sailor finds a quick enemy in the ship’s master-at-arms, Claggart, which eventually causes the demise of both characters.
2. Early in their partnership, Gilbert and Sullivan looked to the sea for inspiration, and found it for their operetta HMS Pinafore. Most of the action takes place aboard this vessel in the British Navy, where politeness is a priority (it gives new meaning to talking like a sailor), and both the sailors and officers seem more concerned with lovemaking than guarding the queen. However, the naval theme seemed to suit this librettist-composer pair. Two years later, they returned to the seas in Pirates of Penzance.
3. British composer Ralph Vaughn Williams looked to the sea for inspiration, following in the footsteps of Handel, with his Water Music or Debussy with La Mer. However, few of those earlier works manifest the feeling of endlessly sailing across oceans as Williams’ first symphony, A Sea Symphony. With a text taken from Walt Whitman, Williams seems to honor all men who have found joy, freedom, loneliness and even their deaths among the waves.
4. William’s predecessor, Edward Elgar also used nautical-themed text borrowing four of Rudyard Kipling’s poems for his song cycle Fringes of the Fleet (Elgar set a subsequent fifth song to a Gilbert Parker text). Elgar wrote the cycle for four baritones during World War I, and the works became a sensation during the war years. However, one person who wasn’t entertained by Elgar’s work was Kipling himself. Kipling voiced his objection to the performances, and the cycle was largely forgotten until a 2009 English recording brought them back into the repertoire.
5. Puccini’s Madame Butterfly doesn’t shine a particularly flattering light on sailors, but it’s hard to think of a more famous or infamous naval officer in opera than Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton. Likewise, its difficult to find a more poignant description of the pain that a navy wife feels when her husband’s at sea than the one from Butterfly’s second act aria, Un Bel Di. Little does she know that Pinkerton has already started making his “real” American family, and becomes one of the most reviled characters in all of opera. Perhaps Butterfly’s fate could have been avoided if the Navy had instituted Fleet Week earlier.
Photo: Madame Butterfly at the Metropolitan Opera, Cristina Gallardo-Domas (Ken Howard/Met)