‘The Woman by the Sea’ was inspired by the 1954 film ‘Sansho Dayu’, directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. It was one scene, and one image in particular, that impelled the composition of this quintet. The film’s narrative concerns the separation, by kidnappers, of a mother from her son and daughter who are sold into slavery. The son, when grown up, finally manages to escape and, after many vicissitudes, traces his now aged mother, blind, crippled and living in a hovel on a remote seashore. The film achieves, through their reunion, a remarkable sense of redemption, and throughout their long separation there is a powerful feeling of anger at the cruelty they suffer, as well as an awareness that somehow their relationship is intact despite their ignorance of each others’ fates.
The final scene with the image of the old, lonely woman outside her shack occasioned the mood and form of this work - there is otherwise no attempt to portray the events or characters of the film. There is, however, a relationship with the sound of the woman’s vain calling out of her children’s names over the ocean, the sound of her calls transformed into two similar rising phrases heard soon after the opening in the violins (while the viola and cello repeat a semitonal figure derived from the violin fragments).
The form of the work is of a large slow movement, with a central quick section that acts as a scherzo and includes within it a dance-like trio. The slow music itself has various elements, a slow unfolding of the opening ideas, marked by a regular beat on the piano, a completely contrasted series of cadenzas for pairs of strings and one for piano leading into the Allegro molto. There are also chordal themes, either in strings or piano, and an idea based on repeated notes, introduced by the piano and taken up by the strings. All these ideas are closely related to the opening fragments on the strings; so too are the occasional sudden flurries of notes, and even the piano beats at the beginning and the gently pulsing chord on the strings at the close maintain this thematic relationship.