Work: A Sea Symphony
About This Work
The poetry of Walt Whitman was a rallying point for Vaughan Williams and his fellow students at Cambridge in the 1890's; for the composer, Whitman remained a lifelong source of inspiration. His largest Whitman setting is A Sea Symphony, which Vaughan
Williams began writing in 1903, when he was 31 years old, and which he completed, only after much revision in 1909. Whitman's decidedly non-ecclesiastical vision of the soul's journey through life as a sea voyage into uncharted regions certainly appealed to Vaughan Williams, a declared agnostic who once exclaimed "Who believes in God nowadays, I should like to know?" according to fellow Trinity scholar Betrand Russell. Drawing inspiration from the cantatas of Parry and the operettas of Sullivan, as well as the English folk songs he had recently begun to collect, Vaughan Williams fashioned a huge score that contains some of the finest choral writing of its era. In the first movement, "A Song for All Seas, All Ships," a stern brass flourish is answered by full chorus, "Behold the sea itself." Thematic motives that will inform the rest of the work are immediately sounded: the words "and on its limitless, heaving breast, the ships" are set to a noble, arching theme that appeared more than once in Vaughan Williams' music, from the early unpublished tone-poem The Solent to the Symphony No. 9 of 1958. A quicker, shanty-like section ensues, making use of the folk song "Tarry Trowsers," in which the baritone soloist sings "a rude, brief recitative of ships sailing the seas." The dramatic entry of the soprano is heralded by the opening brass flourish; her cavatina extends the imagery into the spiritual: "...for the soul of man one flag above all the rest...emblem of man elate above death [.]" The second movement is a nocturne, "On the Beach at Night, Alone," for baritone and chorus, in which, to a dark, rocking accompaniment the soloist muses on "the clef of the universes" and, over a soft march-like tread in the bass (the legacy of Parry), envisions how "A vast similitude interlocks all." The chorus unleashes a forthright and powerful declamation after which the initial mystery of the opening returns, this time with orchestra alone. A sprightly version of the opening fanfare, with pizzicato strings, launches the scherzo "The Waves" for chorus alone. The quick and lightly scored counterpoint in the orchestral accompaniment underscores the interplay of "whistling winds...undulating waves...that whirling current" through which a ship plies its way. The trio is a broad, Parryesque melody to the words "Where the great vessel sailing and tacking displaced the surface." The movement concludes with alternating fanfares for both brass and chorus. "The Explorers" is fully half an hour in length, a finale containing some of Vaughan Williams' most noble music. Here the metaphor of the soul as a ship voyaging through the seas of life is most forthrightly expressed. A quiet introduction for hushed chorus ("O vast Rondure, swimming in space") is followed by a slow march describing the "restless" soul of man from its origins in Adam and Eve, climaxing in a vision of the poet, "the true son of God" who will guide mankind through his songs. The soprano and baritone soloists sing of the Soul "taking ship" to "launch out on trackless seas" in a duet of operatic fervor. A faster section ("Away O Soul!") launches the Soul's journey, with a final note of benediction ("O daring joy, but safe! are they not all the seas of God?") before the symphony sinks from sight in the lowest strings.
-- Mark Satola
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