Vaughan Williams: A Sea Symphony


The next concert of Highgate Choral Society is a very special one. We will sing on Monday, 7 March 2016, 7:30 pm at the Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre London. But not only the venue is special, but also the occasion. It is a concert to celebrate the 65th birthday of our conductor Ronald Corp. The programme consists of three pieces of English music. All three pieces are centred around the sea. Highgate Choral Society is joined by The London Chorus, New London Children’s Choir, New London Orchestra and last but not least two world class soloists, Rebecca Evens (soprano) and Roderick Williams (baritone).

I will write in my blog post about one of the three pieces: Vaughan Williams: A Sea Symphony.

If you are interested in the concert, then please come and you will also hear Benjamin Britten’s Four Sea Interludes and a World Premiere: Behold, the Sea by Ronald Corp.

1. Vaughan Williams started his first sketches for A Sea Symphony in 1903. Initially he thought about writing a song cycle for orchestra (“Songs of the Sea” in five movements). Soon he changed his mind and wanted the work to be a symphony to which he referred to as the “Ocean Symphony”. Finally he gave the symphony the title A Sea Symphony. It is a choral symphony for soprano soloist, baritone soloist, chorus and orchestra. The work had its premiere at the Leeds Festival 1910 – the same festival in which in 1907 already his shorter choral work Toward the Unknown Region was premiered and at which in 1931 Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast should be first performed.

A Sea Symphony was Vaughan Williams first major work; he called it in a letter in summer 1907 his “opus magnum” and his second wife Ursula Vaughan Williams referred to it in her biography about him as

an ambitious and terrifying project, for the scope was to be unlike that of any choral work he had attempted yet“.

A Sea Symphony lasts for about 70 min. and is certainly ambitious. It is also in his form as choral symphony remarkable and significant – for Vaughan Williams personally, but also on a more general level for the genre of choral symphonies.

a) Looking at Vaughan Williams’ own development as a composer it is maybe not surprising that he decided to write as a first symphony a choral symphony. Song and choral singing played for Vaughan Williams an important role on more than just one level. When he studied at the Royal College of Music his teacher Parry emphasised that he stood in the same tradition of English composers as William Byrd and Henry Purcell and encouraged him to

write choral music as befits an Englishman and a democrat.”

Also in the years after college and university music for the voice was essential for him. Vaughan Williams’ first popular piece which started to make his name as a composer was a song Linden Lea. In the same year in which he started to write A Sea Symphony, he developed a keen interest in folk music and travelled through the countryside with his notebook and tried to collect as many “forgotten” folk songs as possible. The last connection with song I want to mention is his work at The English Hymnal (1904 – 1906). He compiled existing hymns, but in cases in which a melody to a text was lost, he occasionally wrote the music himself. For Vaughan Williams the folk songs and also the old hymns and anthems were quintessential English music which influenced and helped him in his endeavour to find his own voice. By writing a choral symphony he maybe tried to ensure that this will also be a work with a specific English tone as opposed to a piece which stands completely and solely in the Austro-German tradition of symphonies.

b) Also on a more general level A Sea Symphony is a remarkable work. It is a choral symphony in which the choir plays a role equal to the orchestra. In earlier choral symphonies, e.g. by Beethoven, Mendelssohn or Mahler, a chorus only appeared in one or two of the movements of the symphony. It was an additional colour or climax in an otherwise purely orchestral work. The chorus was never an equal partner to the orchestra. Only in Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 the chorus is equally important as in the Vaughan Williams’ A Sea Symphony, but Mahler’s Symphony had its first performance on 12 September 1910 and therefore only one month before the premiere of Vaughan Williams’ first symphony. It is extremely unlikely that he could have been influenced by it.

2. The text for A Sea Symphony is taken from the poetry collection Leaves of Grass by the American poet Walt Whitman. The collection was first published in 1855, but several times changed. The first edition only included 12 poems, the last one, the so-called deathbed edition which was published in 1892 included almost 400 poems.

Vaughan Williams discovered Walt Whitman as a student in Cambridge. In 1903 he became absorbed by Whitman’s poetry. Ursula Vaughan Williams mentions that the Leaves of Grass,

in several editions, from large volume to a selection small enough for a pocket, was his constant companion.”

He carefully selected the poems and passages he wanted to use. Only for one movement he used a poem as it was written by Whitman. For the three other movements he selected the verses he wanted to set to music. He explained in a letter to Herbert Thompson who prepared the first programme notes that his treatment of the words is symphonic rather than dramatic,

that is to say the words are used as a basis on which to build up a decorative musical scheme.

He emphasised that for that reason his work is a symphony and not an oratorio.

Asked about the influences for his music of A Sea Symphony, Vaughan Williams referred to Elgar’s Enigma Variations and Dream of Gerontius. A few years earlier Vaughan Williams had asked Elgar whether he could study with him to learn about orchestration. However, Elgar declined and Vaughan Williams decided to learn from Elgar nevertheless and spent long hours sitting in the British Museum to study the scores of both works. Another influence on the music and particular the way how he treats the orchestra is Ravel. In 1907 while he was working on A Sea Symphony, he decided his music needed more colour and lightness and he wanted to study with a French composer. He choose Maurice Ravel and Ravel was happy to take him as pupil. Vaughan Williams spent three month in Paris (December 1907 – March 1908). He studied mainly orchestration with him and was introduced to composers like Rimsky-Korsakov or Borodin. 

 3. A Sea Symphony consists of four movements:

No. 1 A Song for all seas, all ships

No. 2 On the Beach at Night alone

No. 3 Scherzo – The Waves

No. 4 The Explorers

a) A Song for all seas, all ships

For the first movement Vaughan Williams chose five lines from section 8 of Song of Exposition (Book XIII of Leaves of Grass) beginning with “Behold, the sea itself”. He combines these with Song for All Seas, All Ships from Sea Drift (Book XIX of Leaves of Grass). The movement last for about 20 min and is scored for soprano soloist, baritone soloist, chorus and orchestra.

The movement starts with a brass fanfare, immediately followed by the chorus singing “Behold, the sea itself”. The harmonic progression to which the chorus sings these words is used several times throughout the work and it is one of the two significant musical ideas of the symphony. The second significant musical idea is the melody which is part of the opening theme which immediately follows after “Behold, the sea itself”. It is set to the words “And on its limitless, heaving breast”. Also the second musical theme comes several times during the first movement and the last movement. Vaughan Williams said that these two themes

seem to suggest the sea to my mind“.

All in all this movement evokes the immensity and force of the sea and shows how nature is intertwined with men.

b) On the Beach at Night alone

For the second movement Vaughan Williams selected the poem On the Beach at Night Alone, but he omits a few lines of the poem. Also this poem is from Sea Drift. The movement last for about 11 min.

The movement is a nocturne for baritone soloist, chorus and orchestra which reflects on Man’s relationship to the cosmos. It is harmonically ambiguous and atmospheric.

c) Scherzo – The Waves

The third movement is the only one in which Vaughan Williams sets a complete poem to music. The poem is After the Sea Ship and it is again from Sea Drift. This movement is the shortest with about 8 min and it is only for chorus and orchestra. It has a rich atmosphere and Vaughan Williams uses the music and colours of the orchestra to paint a picture of wind, storm and waives.

d) The Explorers

The final movement is longest movement and lasts more than 30 min. Vaughan Williams took the text from the long poem Passage to India in Book XXVI of Leaves of Grass. It is again for the full forces of soprano soloist, baritone soloist, chorus and orchestra.

The movement unites musically and thematically the ideas of the previous movements and translates them into a more transcendental meaning. The text is not any longer about concrete images of ships, waves and flags, but the “great vessel” sailing on the sea is man himself. The movement ends soft with the soloists, the chorus and the orchestra conjuring up the last waves.

4. At its premiere A Sea Symphony was well received. The critic from the Times praised the singing and said that it will not be surprising,

if the Festival of 1910 is remembered in the future as the ‘Festival of the Sea Symphony’.”

However this was not necessarily what Vaughan Williams expected when he wrote it. In a letter to his cousin Ralph Wedgwood in summer 1907 he was very doubtful about the reception and described A Sea Symphony as follows:

This is all about the sea and is for every conceivable voice & instrument & takes over an hour to perform – so I suppose it will now go into its drawer and remain there forever.”

It is lucky for us that the piece did not stay in Vaughan Williams’ drawer.

To see its significance for Vaughan Williams, one should remember that A Sea Symphony (and Dona Nobis Pacem) were the programme chosen for a special concert at the Royal Albert Hall for the culmination of the celebrations for Vaughan Williams’ 70th birthday.

How appropriate that it will be performed again at a very special concert for the celebration of our conductor Ronald Corp’s 65th birthday.

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