VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Symphony No. 1, "A Sea Symphony"

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Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)

A Sea Symphony (Symphony No. 1)

Several first symphonies have caused their composers muchtrouble, not least that by Brahms, who laboured for over two decades to bringhis C minor Symphony to fruition. The difficulty, in that instance, offurthering an Austro-German symphonic tradition still under the shadow ofBeethoven is pertinent when considering A Sea Symphony, the first symphony(though not designated as such) by Ralph Vaughan Williams. When he began it in1903, the composer was in his early thirties, with a number of songs, chamberworks and short orchestral pieces to his name, and little in the way of anational reputation. Completed in 1909, and successfully performed for thefirst time at the Leeds Festival the following year, the work, together withthe Tallis Fantasia, first performed at the Three Choirs Festival only weeksbefore, confirmed the arrival of Vaughan Williams on the national stage.

Parallel to the composer's evolving of a personal musicalidiom went his desire to free English music from the Austro-German frameworkstill prevalent in the music of Parry, Stanford and Elgar. The influence ofParry's choral odes, as well as Stanford's Songs of the Sea and Elgar's SeaPictures, is intermittently evident, while the latter's The Dream of Gerontiushad set a new precedent for a symphonically conceived oratorio, but thecombining of high art and folk-inflected music in A Sea Symphony marks aradical departure, while the setting of verses by Walt Whitman (Leaves of Grassin the first three movements, Passage to India in the finale) reinforces thesense of an artistic new dawn such as remained constant in Vaughan Williams'thinking for the next half century.

A choral symphony in the lineage of Mendelssohn rather thanBeethoven, the formal construction of A Sea Symphony, with its four movementsand sense of tonal closure, nonetheless draws directly on symphonic precedent.The first movement, A Song for all Seas, all Ships, starts with a choralparagraph of breathtaking immediacy, the feeling of new vistas effortlesslyevoked. The main part begins with the \rude brief recitative" sung by thebaritone in shanty-like strains and enthusiastically echoed by the chorus.Contrast follows with the lyrical "chant for the sailors", rising in intensityuntil the opening brass fanfare is recalled and the soprano makes a dramaticentrance at "Flaunt out O seas" - marking the onset of the opulent centralsection. A pensive choral passage centred on the "Tokens of all brave captains"heralds a reprise of the opening music, soloists and chorus in a series ofintensifying exchanges which culminate in the reiterated statement "one flagabove all the rest". The close, however, recollects the universality ofWhitman's message in a mood of tranquillity.

A ruminative calm persists through the second movement, Onthe Beach at Night alone, a nocturne whose harmonic ambiguity provides a sombrecontext for this setting entrusted to the baritone. A more robust centralsection, its main theme warmly set out by horns over pizzicato strings, reachesan affirmative choral climax, before the introspective opening is recalled inlargely orchestral terms.

The third movement, The Waves, is a Scherzo which makesconsiderable demands on the chorus in its contrapuntal intricacy. The work'sopening fanfare is recalled, and two folk-songs, The Golden Vanity and The BoldPrincess Royal, alluded to in this scintillating depiction of the sea as anatural phenomenon. A noble theme evoking a great sea-going vessel twiceprovides contrast, before the movement drives to its defiant conclusion.

The Explorers is an apt title for the large-scale fourthmovement, a heartfelt summation of the composer's musical and spiritualdevelopment. The opening, featuring the words "O vast Rondure swimming inspace", sets the exalted tone of much that follows. A modal processional evokesthe creation of man, leading to a rarefied setting of "Wherefore unsatisfiedsoul" and the determined response "Yet soul be sure", together defining thephilosophical goal of the whole work. A triumphal culmination is built aroundthe word "singing", the soloists entering impulsively at "O we can wait nolonger" to add a more human dimension. The chorus re-enters at "O thoutranscendent", then at "Away O Soul" the music irrupts in a frenzy of shantyrhythms as the ship/soul sets sail. Yet the outburst is cut short: the workending with a calm depiction of the ship vanishing over the horizon, and theimplicit journeying of the soul toward those unknown regions on earth as of thehuman mind.

Richard Whitehouse

1          ASong for all Seas, all Ships

            (Baritone/ Soprano / Chorus)

Behold, the sea itself,

And on its limitless heaving breast, the ships;

See, where their white sails, bellying in the wind, specklethe green and blue,

See, the steamers coming and going,

            steamingin or out of port,

See, dusky and undulating,

            thelong pennants of smoke.

Behold, the sea itself,

And on its limitless heaving breast, the ships.


Today a rude brief recitative,

Of ships sailing the seas,

            eachwith its special flag or ship-signal,

Of unnamed heroes in the ships - of waves spreading andspreading far as the eye can reach,

Of dashing spray,

            andthe winds piping and blowing,

And out of these a chant for the sailors

            ofall nations,

Fitful, like a surge.

Of sea-captains young or old, and the mates,

            andof all intrepid sailors,

Of the few, very choice, taciturn,

            whomfate 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,

            andunitest the nations,

Suckled by thee, old husky nurse, embodying thee,

Indomitable, untamed as thee.


Flaunt out, O sea, your separate flags of nations!

Flaunt out visible as ever the various flags


But do you reserve especially for yourself and for

            thesoul of man one flag above all the rest,

A spiritual woven signal for all nations, emblem of

            manelate above death,

Token of a
Disc: 1
Symphony No. 1, "A Sea Symphony"
1 Song for all Seas, all Ships
2 On the Beach at Night, alone
3 (Scherzo): The Waves
4 The Explorers: Grave e molto adagio
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