for soprano and baritone soloists, chorus, semi-chorus and orchestra

Text taken from poems by Walt Whitman (1819–1892)

Ralph Vaughan Williams’s musical talent was recognised at Charterhouse School which he left early to study composition at the Royal College of Music. His weekly lessons with Hubert Parry in London continued during his time at Trinity College Cambridge where he read both history and music. In 1895 he re-entered the RCM to study with Charles Villiers Stanford. It was here that he met Gustav Holst who became his closest friend, colleague, critic and inspiration. Vaughan Williams married Adeline Fisher in 1897, and together they travelled to Berlin where the young composer studied
briefly with Max Bruch. 

In the early years of the twentieth century Vaughan Williams began to collect folk songs from around the British Isles, which would have a profound influence on his compositions. The distinctly English musical idiom that he helped to develop was also shaped by his work editing a new version of The English Hymnal (1906) for which he immersed
himself in choral music from the Tudor and Elizabethan period. Vaughan Williams added several original compositions to the collection, amongst them ‘Come Down, O Love Divine’, also called ‘Down Ampney’ after his birthplace. 

The pronounced atheism of his youth, which would later mellow into agnosticism, did not prevent him from composing sacred music, including a setting of the Mass. But a great deal of inspiration came to him by way of the spiritual mysticism of the American poet Walt Whitman. The metrical freedom and visionary qualities of his poetry and his humanist outlook made Whitman a popular choice for composers at the beginning of the twentieth century: Delius, Holst and Vaughan Williams all set his verse to music.

Considering Vaughan Williams’s interest in song and his life-long connection to choirs and choir festivals, it is no surprise that his first symphony should be a choral symphony. The work is part symphony, part cantata – the first three movements are more symphonic in form, with the chorus/semi-chorus, two soloists and orchestra being given an equal share in carrying out the musical ideas, although the balance between them changes throughout. The fourth movement, which is nearly as long as the first three put together, is really a cantata in its own right.

The work started out in 1903 as a song-cycle, The Ocean, but evolved into a large-scale symphonic work which was published in 1909 as A Sea Symphony. The composer himself conducted its first performance at the Leeds Festival in 1910. During the long gestation period of the work, Vaughan Williams spent some time in the British Museum studying the scores of Elgar’s Enigma Variations and The Dream of Gerontius. In retrospect he freely admitted the influence of Gerontius on his Sea Symphony, especially in the last movement. For some months at the end of 1907 into 1908 Vaughan Williams went to study with Maurice Ravel in Paris, an intense period from which he returned inspired and with renewed creative energies. Ravel’s influence may have helped to bring out Vaughan Williams’s ability to paint with music, a defining feature of his first symphony with its vivid depiction of the sea.

For A Sea Symphony Vaughan Williams used lines from five different poems by Walt Whitman:  four from Whitman’s collection Leaves of Grass and one (in the last movement) from his Passage to India. The composer takes great liberties in choosing which lines of verse to use and which ones to leave out; he changes the order of verses and even alters words, guided mainly by his own compositional intentions and personal vision. “The nature of Whitman’s texts is cosmic, dealing with the mysterious uncertainties of life”, writes Paul Holmes, “and Vaughan Williams provides music with an appropriate mystical feel. This symphony gazes at the sea but realises it is a symbol for the infinite”. The journey of the human soul depicted in A Sea Symphony ends with the ship of life slowly and calmly disappearing over the horizon into the unknown.

The Symphony

I   A Song for all Seas, all Ships

The symphony begins with a coup de théâtre.  In the key of B flat minor, a brass fanfare introduces the chorus’s opening words, unaccompanied, “Behold, the sea itself!”  At the word ‘sea’ the chord changes to D major and the full orchestra enters with magisterial, Elgarian splendour.  We are invited to contemplate not only the sea but also those who sail on it.  This is the start of an epic journey.  An orchestral ‘sea shanty’ introduces the baritone soloist’s “rude brief recitative” of ships and seafarers;  this contrasts with the more solemn setting of the words, “And out of these a chant for the sailors of all nations”.  The soprano soloist, introduced by a repeat of the opening fanfare, sings “Flaunt out, O sea, your separate flags of nations!”.  

This leads into a contemplative central section, “Token of all brave captains …and all that went down doing their duty”, which is very reminiscent of Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius – the link here between the ideas of the Sea and of Death is the crux of the work.  The tenors introduce a more animated section with a repeat of the phrase,
“Emblem of man elate above death”, which builds to the climax, “One flag above all the rest”.  Finally, the words of the opening fanfare are repeated before the movement dies away.

Behold, the sea itself,
And on its limitless, heaving breast, the ships;
See, where their white sails, bellying in the wind, speckle the green and blue,
See, the steamers coming and going, steaming in or out of port,
See, dusky and undulating, the long pennants of smoke.
Behold, the sea itself,
And on its limitless, heaving breast, the ships.

Baritone Solo and Chorus
To-day a rude brief recitative,
Of ships sailing the seas, each with its special flag or ship-signal,
Of unnamed heroes in the ships — of waves spreading and spreading far as the eye can reach,
Of dashing spray, and the winds piping and blowing,
And out of these a chant for the sailors of all nations,
Fitful like a surge.
Of sea-captains young or old, and the mates, and of all intrepid sailors,
Of the few, very choice, taciturn, whom fate can never surprise nor death dismay,
Picked sparingly, without noise by thee, old ocean, chosen by thee,
Thou sea that pickest and cullest the race in time, and unitest the nations,
Suckled by thee, old husky nurse, embodying thee,
Indomitable, untamed as thee.

Soprano Solo and Chorus
Flaunt out, O sea, your separate flags of nations!
Flaunt out visible as ever the various ship-signals!
But do you reserve especially for yourself and for the soul of man one flag above all the rest,
A spiritual woven signal for all nations, emblem of man elate above death,
Token of all brave captains and of all intrepid sailors and mates,
And all that went down doing their duty,
Reminiscent of them, twined from all intrepid captains young or old,

Soloists and Chorus

A pennant universal, subtly waving all time, o’er all brave sailors,
All seas, all ships.

II   On the Beach at Night Alone

The slow movement is a nocturne for baritone and semi-chorus; the words are from Sea-Drift and contemplate the individual’s position in the vastness of time and space, where everything has its place and all souls are connected, however different they are. The sea’s vastness stands as a metaphor for the encompassing universe. 

The movement begins with almost chanted figures on single notes before the music opens out for “distances of space however wide”. The soloist is accompanied first by just alto voices, then by the whole semi-chorus, then, for the last two lines, “This vast similitude spans them…”,
by the full chorus. 

Baritone Solo and Chorus
On the beach at night alone,
As the old mother sways her to and fro singing her husky song,
As I watch the bright stars shining, I think a thought of the clef of the universes and of the future.
A vast similitude interlocks all,
All distances of space however wide,
All distances of time,
All souls, all living bodies though they be ever so different,
All nations, all identities that have existed or may exist,
All lives and deaths, all of the past, present, future,
This vast similitude spans them, and always has spanned,
And shall forever span them and shall compactly hold and enclose them.

III   The Waves  (Scherzo)

This is the only part of the work that is exclusively devoted to depicting the ocean: we are simply racing at high speed through the waves, invigorated by the spray of salt water.  It is also the most obviously symphonic movement, an orchestral scherzo with choral backing, in which the upper voices evoke the whistling winds. The central trio, at the words, “Where the great vessel sailing…” is in a contrasting ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ style.

After the sea-ship, after the whistling winds,
After the white-gray sails taut to their spars and ropes,
Below, a myriad, myriad waves hastening, lifting up their necks,
Tending in ceaseless flow toward the track of the ship,
Waves of the ocean bubbling and gurgling, blithely prying,
Waves, undulating waves, liquid, uneven, emulous waves,
Toward that whirling current, laughing and buoyant with curves,
Where the great vessel sailing and tacking displaced the surface,
Larger and smaller waves in the spread of the ocean yearnfully flowing,
The wake of the sea-ship after she passes, flashing and frolicsome under the sun,
A motley procession with many a fleck of foam and many fragments,
Following the stately and rapid ship, in the wake following.

IV   The Explorers

The movement opens with a majestic hymn to the ‘vast Rondure’ of the Earth. The tenors and basses describe the journey of Adam and Eve and their children, “Down from the gardens of Asia descending”, which is again set on just one note, to
represent the beginning of time. Humankind’s restless questionings, “Wherefore unsatisfied soul? Whither O mocking life?” are sung by the soprano and alto semi-chorus,
as if from a vast distance.  

The full chorus then sings “Yet soul be sure … After the great captains have accomplished their work”, and the music builds to the rapturous climax:  “Finally shall come the poet worthy that name, the true son of God … singing his songs”.  

This is followed by a restless solo section, “O we can wait no longer” and peaceful musings on the ideas of Time, Space and Death.  At the words “O thou transcendent” the soloists are again joined by the chorus in a paean of praise to God, the Creator. Thoughts then turn once more to death and the journey of the soul. The energetic music at “Away O soul” is similar to the beginning of our journey in the first movement. The chorus in unison sings “Sail forth – steer for the deep waters only”, intensifying to a climax, which is abruptly cut off. The peaceful coda “O farther sail” is full of questions, which the ambiguous ending leaves unresolved.

O vast Rondure, swimming in space,
Covered all over with visible power and beauty,
Alternate light and day and the teeming spiritual darkness,
Unspeakable high processions of sun and moon and countless stars above,
Below, the manifold grass and waters,
With inscrutable purpose, some hidden prophetic intention,
Now first it seems my thought begins to span thee.

Down from the gardens of Asia descending,
Adam and Eve appear, then their myriad progeny after them,
Wandering, yearning, with restless explorations,
With questionings, baffled, formless, feverish, with never-happy hearts
With that sad incessant refrain, –
“Wherefore unsatisfied soul? whither O mocking life?”
Ah who shall soothe these feverish children?
Who justify these restless explorations?
Who speak the secret of the impassive earth?

Yet soul be sure the first intent remains, and shall be carried out,
Perhaps even now the time has arrived.
After the seas are all crossed,
After the great captains have accomplished their work,
After the noble inventors,
Finally shall come the poet worthy that name,
The true son of God shall come singing his songs.

O we can wait no longer, we too take ship O Soul,
Joyous we too launch out on trackless seas,
Fearless for unknown shores on waves of ecstasy to sail,
Amid the wafting winds (thou pressing me to thee, I thee to me, O Soul),
Caroling free, singing our song of God,
Chanting our chant of pleasant exploration.

O Soul thou pleasest me, I thee,
Sailing these seas or on the hills, or waking in the night,
Thoughts, silent thoughts, of Time and Space and Death, like waters flowing,
Bear me indeed as through the regions infinite,
Whose air I breathe, whose ripples hear, lave me all over,
Bathe me, O God, in thee, mounting to thee,
I and my soul to range in range of thee.

Soloists and Chorus
O thou transcendent,
Nameless, the fibre and the breath,
Light of the light, shedding forth universes, thou centre of them.
Swiftly I shrivel at the thought of God,
At Nature and its wonders, Time and Space and Death,
But that I, turning, call to thee O Soul, thou actual me,
And lo, thou gently masterest the orbs,
Thou matest Time, smilest content at Death,
And fillest, swellest full the vastnesses of Space.

Greater than stars or suns,
Bounding O Soul thou journeyest forth;

Away O Soul! hoist instantly the anchor!
Cut the hawsers – haul out – shake out every sail!
Sail forth – steer for the deep waters only.
Reckless O Soul, exploring, I with thee, and thou with me,
For we are bound where mariner has not yet dared to go,
And we will risk the ship, ourselves and all.

O my brave Soul!
O farther, farther sail!
O daring joy, but safe! Are they not all the seas of God?
O farther, farther, farther sail!

Composer:  Vaughan Williams Wiki Link: Title of Musical Work:  A Sea Symphony

London Concert Choir concerts featuring this musical work:

Iron Duke
(15 June 2016)