Henry Hadley: The Ocean


Henry Kimball Hadley (1871-1937) was an American romantic composer. He was an important figure in the development of American symphonic music, however since his death his music has become lost in the onslaught of modernist American composers that found greater success a few years later. Hadley was a successful violinist and conductor as well as an accomplished composer. He was the assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic, as well as being the first American to guest conduct in Berlin.

Hadley composed a wide-range of works including five symphonies, five operas, fifthteen orchestral works plus a huge collection of vocal, chamber and musical theatre works. In 1933, the Musical Courier described Hadley as “the most important composer in the contemporary American scene.” With this in mind, it is a shame that soon after his death in 1937, Hadley was quickly forgotten. Composers in American and Europe began pushing the boundaries, which perhaps made Hadley’s music be seen as old hat. 

Hadley’s music was so popular when he was alive, with some of the top conductors in the world such as Gustav Mahler, Leopold Stokowsku and Karl Muck all pushing to conduct Hadley’s music. Nowadays, only a few key recordings have been produced of Hadley’s music. However, a huge part of his legacy remains at Tanglewood festival, where he once dreamed of creating a classical summer music festival. 

The Ocean was composed between 1920-21 and is based on Louis K. Anspacher’s Ocean Ode. The work received its premiere in November 1921 with Hadley conducting the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall.


The Ode

Anspacher’s Ocean Ode inspired Hadley to create this symphonic poem about the different characters of the ocean. Here are some of the key lines that Hadley took musical inspiration from:

Tear a leaf from the Furies’ history, Loosen the wind’s hoarse. Blast. Unroll the scroll of stormy mystery. Over the ocean’s vast!

Let the wind with its shrill lash. Whip the waves until they gnash. And spume and foam and seethe and fret. And gape their jagged jaws to spet. Their angry spray anent the sky; And rear their towering might to try.

To quench the heaven’s sullen ashes. And fulminating flashes. Leaping through the smoky clouds, That hang low like trailing shrouds. From wailing winds wild in their cry; While the echoing thunder crashes. Tremendously from high.

Rise, thou monster muddy-muscled, Million-armed Briareus! Now if ever thou hast tussled, Wrestle with thy Protean thews. Engulf the wind that scornful mocks. Thy hoary head and spray-dashed locks. Show thy fangs and foaming teeth,

Growl thy darkest growl beneath! Rise, oh rise! Blot the light and drown the skies: Stoop, thou Heaven, ope thy gate, Not in mercy but in hate, Rise, oh rise! Death’s abroad and will be sate.

Naiads bound in graceful slumber. Lie within the dark green caves; Where the flush of slipping waves. Scarce disturbs the shadowy umber. Of the willowy weeds, and laves. The pearlèd grottoes without number.

The wash of waters laps the strand, Then a retreating hush. Of waves soft gliding from the sand. With a hearkening tush. The Undines dance at the curving edge

Where falls the spray; They move to the murmurs of the sedge. That darks with mystery the ledge, In the moon’s pale day.

The crooning wind floats half asleep. Tuning its haunting monotone, But wandering still on the breast of the deep, Alone — Alone — Mingling its sigh with the sedge’s moan, All else doth silence keep. Save where the tripping sea-sprites dance, With dripping toes in gleeful advance. And eager retreat, Treading the time with faery feet, Threading mazes like those of Crete, Throughout the serrate rim.


Hadley made one thing very clear, however:

“I have not followed these strophes in the order in which they appear in the Ode. I intended the first section to be (after a short introduction of majestic harmonies for full orchestra), the Allegro proper of the work, suggesting the elements ‘let loose’ with all the fury and tumult of a tempestuous sea. The introduction contains a short phrase (of three chords) – a motto which recurs again and again throughout the piece, always with great vigour and sinister portent, except at the close, when it is heard for the last time pp in the trumpets and trombones.”


The Music

The striking opening leads us straight into a tumultuous scene. The stormy movements from filter down across the orchestra, with brash brass accentuating the timbre. The vivid orchestration by Hadley stands out here, with the motto being announced in this introductory section. From quick changes in dynamic, the effective opening is full of dark twists and turns. 

The screeching upper strings paired with the boisterous brass makes for quite the epic showdown between sea and sky. For the most part, each section is working against each other, with only a glimmer of unity happening at pinnacle points of the piece. The intense climaxes are small but effective in how it takes you on this stormy journey. The small interludes of quiet music lead you into a false sense of security before loud and thunderous crashes bring you back into the storm. This is a reflection on how unexpected the behaviour of the sea can be.

The middle section is seemingly much calmer than the opening. Hadley comments that this section contains the ‘sea-sprites’. These are portrayed by three flutes, and then celli and a solo clarinet take it over. The fluttering upper woodwinds are graceful and delicate, with the main melody here being a stark contrast to that of the opening material. The serene atmosphere that Hadley builds in this section is rich in textures, with Hadley utilising the cor anglais, french horn and celli to create those really rich orchestrations. 

The last part of The Ocean was described by Hadley:

“The last part is the quiet, serene ocean flowing on through eternity. This begins with an undulating movement in the divided double-basses and harp over which sounds a succession of broken chords in the strings with bell-like effect. Against the solo horn sings a new melody of great calm, which is answered by the oboe and in turn taken up by all the solo instruments. This theme is finally developed and expanded by the full orchestra, and after a fff climax the music dies away with the reiteration of the motto pp and the sound of the bells.” 


Hadley was inspired by the Ode throughout, with these lines inspiring the final few minutes of music: 

The dreaming moon-light silvers all. In the eve serene; And the rolling rise and fall. Of the waves, careen, Rhythmical and gradual, Mesmerically musical, Hold the sea in silent thrall. And undulate the sheen. Now the halcyon breeds its young. On the ocean’s lull; Now is heard the distant call. Of the wandering gull.

Under night’s deep sapphire pall. All else to steep is sung. Thy deep rest pervades, my soul. With inviolable quiet. Oh, thou great, dark sea, I would be one with thee. Gliding like thee to thy goal, Gaining ever closer nigh it. Riding on a tidal roll. Over every hindering shoal, And ever grandly sweeping by it. To eternity.


Final Thoughts

From the tumultuous opening to the heart-wrenching climax at the end of the piece, The Ocean is one of Hadley’s finest orchestral works. His use of Anspacher’s Ocean Ode adds to the imagery sewn into the score. The glistening finale shows the power, strength and beauty that lies within the sea. 


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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