Elgar composed the piece on his 1844 Broadwood Square piano while residing at Birchwood Lodge, Great Storridge in Herefordshire. The songs were originally written in high keys for a soprano voice, but transposed to lower keys for the orchestral version, largely at the request of the contralto Clara Butt. The songs were composed in July 1899 (apart from "In Haven (Capri)", which was a reworking of his 1897 "Love alone will stay").
The premiere was on 5 October 1899 at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival with Elgar himself conducting and Clara Butt singing, dressed as a mermaid. On 7 October, Clara Butt gave the first London performance at St. James's Hall, with Elgar at the piano. Nearly two weeks later, on 20 October, Butt performed it for Queen Victoria at Balmoral.
Until August 1900, Elgar's songs had been published by Novello: but Elgar had a disagreement with them, and from then his songs, including "The Pipes of Pan" and Sea Pictures were published by Boosey & Hawkes, who bought the copyright for £50, with a small royalty per copy of the songs published separately.