An English Sea Song Suite

The four tunes used in this suite have been made universally popular in Sir Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea Songs, which is an ever-present ingredient in The Last Night of the Proms. He introduced this colourful suite into to the Proms in 1905, to celebrate the centenary of Nelson’s brilliant victory at Trafalgar, when ‘Britannia’ really did ‘rule the waves’. This arrangement of the original tunes has been made in the year of that famous sea battle’s bicentenary.

The tunes, however, all have very different pedigrees:-

The Saucy Arethusa first appeared in William Shield’s 1796 play Lock and Key where the hero, a naval officer, sang it as a serenade under the window of his lady-love; the song achieved immediate and lasting popularity. The Arethusa was a British naval vessel which had given chase to and engaged the French ship La Belle Poule in June 1778.

Farewell and Adieu was a capstan shanty, which would have been sung on board ship as the capstan was turned to raise the anchor for its homeward journey. The earliest known reference to the tune is in the 1796 logbook of a naval ship called The Nellie, but it is certainly much older than that. Its words describe sailors returning to England from Spain.

Tom Bowling was written by Charles Dibdin (1740-1814) on the death of his eldest brother, Thomas Dibdin, captain of a ship in the East India trade who died at sea. It first appeared in The Oddities which was performed at The Lyceum Theatre in 1789. The song is also known as the Sailor's Epitaph and describes the heroic adventures of its eponymous hero.

Such is the widespread popularity of Jack’s the Lad or The Sailor’s Hornpipe that it is claimed as a national tune by Ireland and Scotland as well as England. The dance gets its name because it was accompanied by a hornpipe, a wooden pipe with spaced holes and a mouthpiece made of horn. As a dance, the hornpipe dates back to the 15th century and was soon associated with sailors and the sea, with steps that relate to naval activities. One of the earliest printings of this particular tune appears in a volume entitled Compleat Tutor for the German Flute, published in 1766.