In 1795 the famous German poet and author, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, wrote a pair of sea poems. Both are short. The first (Meeresstille, or Calm at Sea) consists of only eight lines; the second (Glückliche Fahrt, or The Prosperous Voyage), 10 lines. However, they would inspire Felix Mendelssohn to compose a captivating concert overture which borrowed the titles of Goethe’s poems and was first performed in 1828.

A symphonic seascape

Watch the Frankfurt Radio Symphony perform Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage (Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt), Opus 27. At the baton is Andrés Orozco-Estrada, Colombian violinist and conductor.

The source of Mendelssohn’s inpiration

The following are English translations of Goethe’s poems from the 1853 book, Poems of Goethe, translated in the original metres by Edgar Alfred Bowring.

Goethe obviously intended the poems to be read in tandem. The first describes a deathly calm at sea. For sailors during the Age of Sail, this spelled trouble. The boat is becalmed — meaning, it is dead in the water. It cannot move forward as there is no wind to propel the sails. The second talks about improving conditions at sea. With the mist clearing and the wind building up, the vessel is finally able to sail. The poem ends with the triumphant shout, “I see land beyond!”

Meeresstille (Calm at Sea)

Silence deep rules o’er the waters,
Calmly slumb’ring lies the main,
While the sailor views with trouble
Nought but one vast level plain.
Not a zephyr is in motion!
Silence fearful as the grave!
In the mighty waste of ocean
Sunk to rest is ev’ry wave.

Glückliche Fahrt (The Prosperous Voyage)

The mist is fast clearing.
And radiant is heaven,
Whilst Aeolus loosens
Our anguish-fraught bond.
The zephyrs are sighing,
Alert is the sailor.
Quick! nimbly be plying!
The billows are riven,
The distance approaches;
I see land beyond!

~ Barista Uno

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