Librettist Peter Davison- Captain Samuels Speaks to the Sea
Peter Davison, Artistic Director of Two Rivers Festival and author of Captain Samuels speaks to the sea writes about some of the background to Ensemble Epomeo’s latest commissioned work, due to be performed at Newburyport on 13 October.
Writing any kind of text to order poses a unique challenge. At the mundane level, it can be like a homework project – please write so many words on a given subject, trying to avoid spelling mistakes and any errors of grammar. But sometimes the need to focus on a project you have not thought of yourself can be a very fruitful discipline. When I was asked by David Yang, Artistic Director of the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival and violist of Ensemble Epomeo, to write something that connected his festival with mine here in Wirral, England, the challenge was irresistible. First we had to check a hunch. Did ships from Newburyport, USA ever sail to Wirral’s old port on the Dee estuary at Parkgate?
Until the early 19C, Parkgate was the major port for ships heading West to Ireland and beyond. Handel stayed there while waiting to travel to Dublin for the first performance of the Messiah, and supposedly Liszt did too on one his early concert tours. The port silted up in the early 19C, so that trade switched to the deeper moorings in nearby Liverpool on the River Mersey, which soon grew to be the one of the busiest ports in the world. We drew a blank regarding Parkgate, but the connections between Newburyport and Liverpool were much stronger. Advised by the Director of the Custom House Maritime Museum in Newburyport, Michael Mroz, we focused on Samuel Samuels, the famous American sea-captain who sailed the transatlantic shipping lanes throughout the mid 19C, and whose ship Dreadnought held the record for the fastest crossing ever made by a three-masted clipper; a feat that was not eclipsed until the advent of steamships.
To write about such a character required that I came to understand him, discovering his achievements and the chief incidents of his life. We are especially lucky that Captain Samuels wrote an entertaining and well-written memoire – From the Forecastle to the Cabin. It reads like a classic adventure story, from his running away to sea to escape the beatings of his step-mother to his confrontations with violent mutineers and pirates. At one stage, he even assisted in an elopement. He shows himself a man of sensitivity and courage, but what interested me particularly was his combative spirit; his need to race and compete. This seems to me something fundamental to our modern outlook, where winning is paramount. I wanted to ask – what motivates this drive in human nature?
I imagined how Samuels might look back on his life and his relationship with the sea. Was he striving to beat his fellow men, to prove a point, to win glory – or was he in fact pitted against the sea itself? He could achieve nothing without the sea’s assistance, and often as not, the sea was his greatest obstacle. I placed Samuels at the end of his life, looking out to sea, recalling a remarkable personal history and facing death with calm resignation, as it creeps up on him in old age. He reflects on why he felt so driven, and what the sea had really meant to him. Many will sense the obvious symbolism of the sea as both the collective and personal unconscious, as an image of Nature’s mystery, even as divine presence. The sea is Samuels’ inner awareness, the ocean of his mind.
Once I had the central idea in place, words flowed quickly. Then came the more painstaking and painful process of refinement, editing and performing out loud, to be sure the text fulfilled its purpose. It is not a poem in the strictest sense, but it had to have a natural rhythm and a shape that would make it memorable, fluent and meaningful. Because the text was to be set to music, it needed a form in distinct sections; each with a definite and contrasting mood. First he remembers the past with pride. Then he returns to childhood, falling under the sea’s spell. In his prime, he builds his miracle-ship and wins glory. But, in the last section, he is resigned and reflective because he is yesterday’s man. Usually, images and ideas recur without conscious effort to create a unity. The sea is one such symbol. She is a fickle mistress, a source of comfort and a stubborn opponent. The image of gold also recurs; the golden sunshine of memory and gold as the reward of heaven. But perhaps the key moment of the text is the revelation of the hidden fear that has driven the heroic captain to his achievements. Racing needs a rival or a pursuer, and the fear of defeat, the fear of losing is perhaps a stronger driver than even the wish to come first. The human need to strive, to conquer and achieve has a diabolical aspect – a bid for immortality and to beat the divine creator at his own game.
I researched on-line the rich store of Anglo-American sea shanties, and found in them an authentic heritage of the high seas. There are songs of loss – sailors lost at sea, lovers abandoned on cliff-tops, but also songs of the joy of freedom from the constraints of conventional life. The sea captivates us all through its mythic presence, whether we step on a boat or not. It draws us beyond the horizon towards the unknown, into its awesome power and vastness. We love it, yet it can at any time sweep us away into oblivion. It inspires courage and fear, drawing out the best of us and the worst.
Any human achievement is relative to its own time, and the way in which we are all superseded also interested me. In our own time, the Atlantic can be crossed in a just a few hours by plane and it is unremarkable to do so but, back then, crossing the ocean in under a fortnight seemed a miracle of speed and human endeavour. In my piece, Samuels hints at the future, knowing that what impresses one generation is commonplace to another. He lived through the decline of the great sail-ships grieving the loss of their romance and their intrinsic connection the elements. He knew that technological advance had diminished his achievement over time, and that the excitement of being first and fastest had been short-lived.
The aim of writing my text was to extract the universal from the specific, to find what is true for all of humanity in one man’s story. Samuel Samuels brings a special dignity to his achievements, because he lived such a full and adventurous life. Fear may have driven him, but he never succumbed to his fears, instead turning them into a relish for adventure and testing himself to the limit. I hope my words will capture something of his indomitable spirit, but also the sadness that accompanies the decline of his considerable powers. Samuels embraces eternity willingly and with faith, with the same spirit with which, in his heyday, he sailed to distant horizons. In his sturdy bones, he knew that the cycle of life and death is one long journey into the unknown.
Peter Davison is a writer, poet, cultural commentator and initiator of creative projects. He has written a good deal of poetry, includingRiverborn and In the Borders, exploring the mythical presence of landscape and Man’s often troubled relationship with Nature. He has also thought deeply about music. In 2001, he edited Reviving the Muse, a collection of writings on the direction of new music, including two essays of his own and, in 2010, published Wrestling with Angels about the life and work of Gustav Mahler. Peter Davison has been artistic consultant to the major international concert venue, The Bridgewater Hall in Manchester, England, since it opened in 1996, and became co-founder and artistic director of the Two Rivers Festival in Wirral in 2008.