Web exclusive: Navigating waves of sound with Ravel’s “l’Océan”

Sheet music for French composer Maurice Ravel’s 1906 composition “A Boat on the Ocean” – photo by Alexander Greer ’20

The churning of turbulent waves — cresting, crashing, and receding, foam spraying, sails spattering, completely overwhelming: the taste and smell of salt, the shock of freezing cold water, shades of blue and gray and white. An experience shared by ship captains and crew members alike. Yet not reserved for just seafarers. 

     French composer Maurice Ravel captures this sensory dynamism in his 1906 orchestral composition, “Une Barque sur l’Océan,” or, “A Boat on the Ocean.” The most recognizable recorded rendition of the piece was performed in 1983 by the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Charles Dutoit.

     The third movement in the five-movement suite Miroirs (“mirrors”), “l’Océan” conjures images of a small boat’s triumphs and struggles navigating a restless sea. The piece was dedicated to Paul Sordes, a French painter and fellow member of the contemporary French artist league Les Apache, whose members included Igor Stravinsky and Claude Debussy. “l’Océan” is filled with swelling arpeggios rising and releasing. These tension-filled phrases follow the path of the imaginary boat as it travels up and down waves of various magnitudes. 

A 1925 portrait of French composer Maurice Ravel – provided by Bibliothèque nationale de France via Wikimedia Commons

     The piece opens with a calming woodwind and string section and moves through to a slow melody, drifting along placid waters. The pace then picks up with a stronger brass melody dotted with percussive trills – a brief spout of rougher seas. Then all returns to normal with swelling, reinvigorated strings. 

     Soon harmonies quiet and descend into the bass register, only to resolve tentatively into a cadence of beauty and uncertainty. The listener is surrounded by towering waves rising and falling, their foamy breaks heard as crashing cymbals. A repeated flute trill above a growing orchestral flourish warns of approaching danger, at last letting the boat break free to navigate a more turbulent ocean. Horns and clarinets maneuver to surround the listener, trying to push the boat off course.

A weary boat rocked by turbulent waves in J. M. W. Turner’s 1842 painting ‘Snow Storm’ – provided by Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

     Eventually, the orchestra returns thematically to the calm sea, this time a little wearier. Suddenly, three more flute trills hit full force; the boat is thrown into churning waves, still in one piece, but barely able to stay in control. For several minutes, the percussive, brass ocean breathes and pulses, the boat a somber violin melody. 

Peaceful waters return, and the angry sea is left behind, merely a pleasing memory sung by delicate chimes as the listener settles, relaxing onto the open ocean.

     Finally, oboes and timpanis collide to create a final, musical set of cresting waves, lifting the boat to the top with each swell. Peaceful waters return, and the angry sea is left behind, merely a pleasing memory sung by delicate chimes as the listener settles, relaxing onto the open ocean.

     For a work experienced only through sound, “l’Océan” is a masterwork of sensory imagery. Every instrument, melody, and phrase simulates the relentless sea with vivid accuracy. This style of contemporary music embodies the break down of boundaries between art forms: paintings, operas, suites, and plays all share the same goal of conveying a message to an audience. “l’Océan” serves as the soundtrack to the listeners’ imaginations, stimulating their minds to roam freely through memory and perception as they fill the sensory gaps of the musical experience. 

     Sitting comfortably at home, one can feel the spray of the waves and the rocking of the ocean.