Like many of Chaminade’s solo piano works, Marine, op. 38, is in ternary form—the A section being repeated literally before leading to a coda. Gratefully written, it exploits the full range of tone-colour offered by the piano, from the sonorous depth of the bass to glistening arabesques in the upper register.

The title, somewhat vaguely translated as ‘Sea-Piece’, effectively portrays a calm, rolling ocean. Here there is little sense of peril such as that in Ravel’s much more overtly dramatic ‘Une barque sur l’océan’, from Miroirs. The pervasive trochaic rhythmic creates a sense of rise and fall, the low-register bass suggests vast depths of water beneath us, while the pedal-notes lend stability. Of the A section, only one bar abandons the instrument’s lowest octave. Above this, the right hand contains faster-moving broken chord figures and rippling arabesques, little waves splashing on the water’s surface. Only in the coda do things take a more ominous turn, but this threat is short-lived, and clear skies and blue water by and large prevail.

Chaminade: Marine, op. 38, bars 1-4

The A section presents the main idea—though it can hardly be called a melody—the right hand elaborating in shorter note-values a rising-and-falling shape in the left hand. The harmony, essentially oscillating I-V7, is underpinned by a tonic pedal until halfway through bar 5, when the move to the dominant, which arrives at bar 7, is initiated. To provide some relief from the I-V harmonic bias, Chaminade makes colouristic use of an (implicit) E𝄬7 chord, sometimes with a diminished fifth, functioning as German/French 6th or Neapolitan 2nd, depending on the prevailing key. First in bar 4, then in bar 8, where it tugs against the dominant pedal in the bass, it occurs again in bar 10, when the bass compromises, and the music briefly drifts towards B𝄬, before sliding chromatically back to the tonic.

It is worth observing the sense of breadth, of expansiveness, that comes from Chaminade’s consistent deployment of over four octaves of the piano’s compass. If we think in terms of G major, this compass is six octaves (most instruments lack a low ,,G). The music avoids the highest available octave until the final flourish in the penultimate bar. Likewise, the music only rarely descends below the lowest available tonic: once, establishing the dominant in bar 7 (and bar 40 in the A-section reprise), then the flat submediant in bar 10; there are a couple of low dominants in the relative major of the B section (that is F, the dominant of B𝄬, the relative of G minor); the (global) dominant in bars 28 and 34; and one flat submediant in bar 32.

The Aeolian-tinged B-section melody, in the parallel minor, has something almost shanty-like about it. While maintaining the trochaic rhythm, repeated block chords replace the rising-and-falling arpeggios, which creates a greater sense of solidity, as does the increased concentration on the piano’s middle three octaves. Having modulated to the relative, B𝄬 major, by bar 21, a brief reminiscence of A-section figuration (bar 23) instigates a hushed return to G minor in bars 24-5. The ‘bleeding’ of material from one section into another also creates a more fluid sense of structure, unifying the whole.

Chaminade: Marine, op. 38, bars 18-21

Note how Chaminade extends by one beat the imperfect cadence in bar 27—this reinforcement of the tonic occurring at the point where the original statement of the material began its modulation to the relative major. This causes the metrical displacement of the answering phrase, and the resulting one-beat extension of the close into B𝄬 major at bar 30. Masterful, too, is the re-use of the material from bars 22-3 in bars 31-2, now centred on V and 𝄬VI6dim5 of G then, V and V+, to usher in the A-section reprise.

This reprise is literal until bar 48. Bar 50 is a repeat of bar 16, though with a varied left hand. Bar 49, while based on bar 16/50, delays the expected perfect cadence—marking an upward 6^-7^ progression. This cadence, however, is interrupted by—again!—the E𝄬 German sixth, in the most sombre turn of the piece, against an ominous dominant pedal, tolling in the deepest register. Bar 55 resolves this into a G+, then to G (the augmented fifth remaining, enharmonically, as an E𝄬), before all the gloom is dissipated in a shimmering trill and upward flourish—one final spray of foam. Finally, the low, rolling chords of the opening return to bring the piece to its conclusion.

For me, the remarkable aspect of this work is just how evocative it is, and also the economy with which Chaminade is able to construct a cohesive and cogent whole from a small number of brief ideas. At its worst, musical tone-painting can be little more than a string of pictorial effects. Such a piece must work on two levels: first, the musical devices employed, while not resorting to mere mimicry, must indeed convey a sense of the image, mood, atmosphere, or whatever, that the composer intends; second, and most importantly, the piece must make as much sense, purely as a piece of musical composition, to a listener who is unaware of the composer’s intended representation as it does to one who is aware of it. This movement succeeds magnificently in both regards.

From the pianistic perspective, the focus on rolled chords, pedal notes, and arabesques, makes this as joyous to play as it is satisfying to listen to. Good, reliable fingering in the right hand figurations, of course, is essential for success. While many of the left-hand chords are tenths, a big hand is not essential—good use of the wrist is. That said, it’s not only acceptable, but perhaps better tone-painting, to take a little more time over the rolled chords. As long as they’re not so slow that each note sounds as if it’s rhythmically distinct, it’s quite within the feeling of ebb and flow.

Dynamics should be on the subdued side: only six forte and four fortissimo markings, as opposed to ten pianos and thirteen pianissimos (and even a ppp); the main A-section idea is marked dolce, and dolcissimo at the reprise; and the two arabesque passages (bars 13 and 41) and the final trill are all marked leggierissimo (calling for delicacy, rather than brilliance). Although the B-section melody is marked marcato on the four occasions it appears, I would suggest that a more sympathetic interpretation of the word here—rather than the usual ‘accented’—is ‘projected’ or, in other words, at a distinctly higher level of tone than its chordal accompaniment. We can perhaps induce from this that there is not one dominant melodic voice, that the A-section material can be voiced more equally. 

Use restraint, too, in the various requested tempo fluctuations: Chaminade is fastidious about whether the rit. is poco or molto, so observe the differences carefully, but remember, too, that the relentless swaying of the rhythm is fundamentally important to the character of this piece.

Chaminade’s pedal markings are also detailed, and there are moments where she specifically requests use of the left pedal, too. Remember, though, that all instruments and acoustics are different and what will be effective in one circumstance may not be so in another. In this regard, we should always try to honour the spirit, rather than the letter, of the score.