6 May 2016

Curtain Raiser: Vaughan Williams - A Sea Symphony

From the collecton Curtain Raiser

This 1909 symphony for orchestra, choir and two soloists uses texts by the American Walt Whitman. The vast spaces between haze-shrouded vistas and unfathomable depths of the sea become a metaphor for eternity.

Pacific Ocean Sunset

Pacific Ocean Sunset Photo: Tony Webster, CC by 2.0

Big and ungainly, but warm-hearted, sensitive, noble and visionary, A Sea Symphony was Ralph Vaughan Williams' first attempt at writing a large-scale symphonic work. He never wrote anything quite like it again, and didn't really have to. With this work he developed from a writer of songs into a composer with an unmistakable voice capable of handling large, epic structures.

Vaughan Williams had discovered the poetry of the American Walt Whitman while an undergraduate at Cambridge, drawn in particular to an anthology which bore the title 'Leaves of Grass'. He wasn't the first English composer to show interest in Whitman's poetry. Charles Villiers Stanford,  Gustav Holst  and Frederick Delius had all previously set poems from the same collection. And during the six years he spent working on the Sea Symphony, Vaughan Williams himself completed a shorter work Towards the Unknown Region, which made use of verses by Whitman cut from the same poetic cloth.

The composer began work on the symphony in 1903 with sketches for a slow movement and scherzo given the title 'Songs of the Sea'. Later he was calling the work 'The Ocean Symphony' and even completed a movement he called 'The Steersman' which he later discarded. In 1908, before the work was finished, Vaughan Williams paid a visit to Maurice Ravel for three weeks of intensive study. Ravel paid him the compliment of observing that he was "the only one of my students that does not write my music".

At the 1909 première of A Sea Symphony conducted by Vaughan Williams himself, the Leeds audience must have been galvanized by the tremendous opening, the brass's stern warning shouts and the mighty chorus "Behold! - the sea, itself!", like the opening of a vast door onto a huge, rolling vista.

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