Earlier this summer I had a chance to do something extraordinary. To celebrate a milestone birthday of a beloved family member, the family went on a trip sailing through the Greek islands, with Venice as our port of departure and return. Beyond the family time, this trip had special treat for me—I was able for the first time to sail past the ancient island of Ithaca.
Ithaca is a small island that looms large in the Western mind. It was made famous by Homer’s Odyssey as the home of Odysseus the wanderer, his wife Penelope who waited patiently for his return, and his son Telemachus who helped restore his father to his rightful throne. I can’t say that the Odyssey is one of my favorite works of literature—I much prefer the Iliad—but there is no denying that Ithaca is one of the great primordial Places of Western culture, a site that still exerts a strong tidal pull on our collective memory. Depicted in countess works of art, the island remains a powerful symbol of the importance of home, homeland and family.
For a dreamer like me, with a deep and long-lasting love of Classical history, seeing this island was a rare treat.
As such, I had to carefully plan how I got to experience it. I scouted out the perfect hiding spot on the ship where I could sequester myself from the other family members and onboard activities, and got myself comfortable to wait for the fabled island to drift by.
Naturally, such an experience needed a soundtrack. Allow me to share a bit about my playlist, which for me caught the magic of that moment.
First, I settled on Danish composer Carl Nielsen’s Helios Overture. Nielsen is a composer we should know more of, whose unique voice has been overshadowed by the music of his more nationalistic counterparts Edvard Grieg and Jean Sibelius. Helios follows the path of the sun as it passes majestically over the Aegean Sea; Nielsen wrote on the score: “Silence and darkness, the sun rises with a joyous song of praise, it wanders its golden way and sinks quietly into the sea.” It was written during the composer’s lengthy sojourn to Athens and is a masterpiece of orchestral color.
But I could not leave off my favorite composer, Jean Sibelius (I’m Finnish. So sue me.) Fortunately, Sibelius wrote a perfect piece to accompany this magical moment: The Oceanides. Sibelius was far more famous for his vivid depictions of Finnish mythology, but the Oceanides is a rare detour into the world of classical myth, depicting the sea nymphs as they play in the warm waters of the Aegean. It is frequently described as impressionistic along the lines of the great French masters. Regardless of whether or not it qualifies as such, it is a gorgeous work that rises to a stunning climax as the waves gather together in force. Not to be missed.
And finally, a more unusual selection: Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Anadyomene, The Adoration of Aphrodite. The name means “born of sea foam;” the work vividly depicts Aphrodite rising from the sea in all her glory. A relatively short work, it is swirls with rich, impressionistic harmonies and a mysterious, flowing mood. The funny thing is, it began its life as a work of serialism as a homage to Finnegan’s Wake. But as Rautavaara worked on it he found that the musical themes simply refused to allow themselves to be boxed into, as he described it, “the serial straitjacket and quasi-scientific thinking” and instead called out for lushness, fertility and melody. The work became one of primordial forces coming together and giving birth to something of absolute beauty. Like the birth of the goddess herself. It is a gorgeous work of modern orchestral music.
Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria. “The Return of Odysseus to his Homeland.” This opera by Claudio Monteverdi actually touches on all parts of the trip; not only does plot revolve around Odysseus’s return to Ithaca, it was written by a Venetian composer and premiered in Venice. One of the first operas in the modern sense of the word.
Juditha triumphans. An oratorio by Antonio Vivaldi, also a Venetian composer, tells the biblical story of Judith who saved her people from an invasion of the Assyrians. The work was commissioned to celebrate the Venetian’s successful defense of Corfu from a Turkish invasion.
Idomeneo. Mozart’s opera of the King of Crete’s homecoming after the Trojan War.
Les Troyens. Hector Berlioz’s opera about the fall of Troy and the wanderings of the surviving Trojans.
Return of Ulysses. Greek composer Nikos Skalkottas’s take on Odysseus’s homecoming. While we’re at it, add his Greek Dances for Orchestra and The Sea. Great fun, even if they aren’t great masterpieces.
Serenade, after Plato’s “Symposium.” Gorgeous violin concerto by Leonard Bernstein, written on the subject of love.
Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage. I’m thinking more of the version by Felix Mendelssohn, but Beethoven has similar composition.
Escales. “Ports of Call.” Jaques Ibert’s beloved piece is a travelogue about sailing in the Mediterranean. Maybe the wrong part of the Mediterranean for this trip, but a great piece.
Pan and Syrinx. Another work by Carl Nielsen on the subject of Greek mythology.
Othello Overture. Antonín Dvořák’s overture on Shakespeare’s tragedy of the Moor of Venice is a fantastic miniature. Verdi’s opera Otello would also be a worthy, and thematically appropriate addition.
And because I’ve had the distinct pleasure of performing them:
Daphnis et Chloé. Ravel’s impressionistic masterpiece adapts a classical romance by Longus that tells the story of a Greek goatherd who loves the beautiful Chloe.
A Sea Symphony. Ralph Vaughan William’s choral symphony has nothing to do with Greece or Venice, but is an unforgettable depiction of the ocean in its many moods, and in the end becomes a visionary work about the questing spirit of humankind.
Obviously, there are many more choices I could include, but these works provide enough music for several sea voyages. What else would you add, if you were to find yourself voyaging on the wine-dark sea to an ancient land?