REGISTER NOW AND GET
• 5 FREE tracks! • 101 tracks for $9.99
ClassicsOnline Home » VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Symphony No. 1, "A Sea Symphony"
By Andrew Achenbach
By David Patrick Stearns
The Philadelphia Inquirer
By Colin Clarke
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
A Sea Symphony (Symphony No. 1)
Several first symphonies have caused their composers much
trouble, not least that by Brahms, who laboured for over two decades to bring
his C minor Symphony to fruition. The difficulty, in that instance, of
furthering an Austro-German symphonic tradition still under the shadow of
Beethoven is pertinent when considering A Sea Symphony, the first symphony
(though not designated as such) by Ralph Vaughan Williams. When he began it in
1903, the composer was in his early thirties, with a number of songs, chamber
works and short orchestral pieces to his name, and little in the way of a
national reputation. Completed in 1909, and successfully performed for the
first time at the Leeds Festival the following year, the work, together with
the Tallis Fantasia, first performed at the Three Choirs Festival only weeks
before, confirmed the arrival of Vaughan Williams on the national stage.
Parallel to the composer’s evolving of a personal musical
idiom went his desire to free English music from the Austro-German framework
still prevalent in the music of Parry, Stanford and Elgar. The influence of
Parry’s choral odes, as well as Stanford’s Songs of the Sea and Elgar’s Sea
Pictures, is intermittently evident, while the latter’s The Dream of Gerontius
had set a new precedent for a symphonically conceived oratorio, but the
combining of high art and folk-inflected music in A Sea Symphony marks a
radical departure, while the setting of verses by Walt Whitman (Leaves of Grass
in the first three movements, Passage to India in the finale) reinforces the
sense 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 than
Beethoven, the formal construction of A Sea Symphony, with its four movements
and sense of tonal closure, nonetheless draws directly on symphonic precedent.
The first movement, A Song for all Seas, all Ships, starts with a choral
paragraph of breathtaking immediacy, the feeling of new vistas effortlessly
evoked. The main part begins with the “rude brief recitative” sung by the
baritone in shanty-like strains and enthusiastically echoed by the chorus.
Contrast follows with the lyrical “chant for the sailors”, rising in intensity
until the opening brass fanfare is recalled and the soprano makes a dramatic
entrance at “Flaunt out O seas” - marking the onset of the opulent central
section. 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 of
intensifying exchanges which culminate in the reiterated statement “one flag
above all the rest”. The close, however, recollects the universality of
Whitman’s message in a mood of tranquillity.
A ruminative calm persists through the second movement, On
the Beach at Night alone, a nocturne whose harmonic ambiguity provides a sombre
context for this setting entrusted to the baritone. A more robust central
section, its main theme warmly set out by horns over pizzicato strings, reaches
an affirmative choral climax, before the introspective opening is recalled in
largely orchestral terms.
The third movement, The Waves, is a Scherzo which makes
considerable demands on the chorus in its contrapuntal intricacy. The work’s
opening fanfare is recalled, and two folk-songs, The Golden Vanity and The Bold
Princess Royal, alluded to in this scintillating depiction of the sea as a
natural phenomenon. A noble theme evoking a great sea-going vessel twice
provides contrast, before the movement drives to its defiant conclusion.
The Explorers is an apt title for the large-scale fourth
movement, a heartfelt summation of the composer’s musical and spiritual
development. The opening, featuring the words “O vast Rondure swimming in
space”, sets the exalted tone of much that follows. A modal processional evokes
the creation of man, leading to a rarefied setting of “Wherefore unsatisfied
soul” and the determined response “Yet soul be sure”, together defining the
philosophical goal of the whole work. A triumphal culmination is built around
the word “singing”, the soloists entering impulsively at “O we can wait no
longer” to add a more human dimension. The chorus re-enters at “O thou
transcendent”, then at “Away O Soul” the music irrupts in a frenzy of shanty
rhythms as the ship/soul sets sail. Yet the outburst is cut short: the work
ending with a calm depiction of the ship vanishing over the horizon, and the
implicit journeying of the soul toward those unknown regions on earth as of the
Song for all Seas, all Ships
/ Soprano / Chorus)
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,
in or out of port,
See, dusky and undulating,
long pennants of smoke.
And on its limitless heaving breast, the ships.
Today a rude brief recitative,
Of ships sailing the seas,
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,
the winds piping and blowing,
And out of these a chant for the sailors
Fitful, like a surge.
Of sea-captains young or old, and the mates,
of all intrepid sailors,
Of the few, very choice, taciturn,
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,
unitest 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
soul of man one flag above all the rest,
A spiritual woven signal for all nations, emblem of
elate above death,
Token of all brave captains and of all intrepid
And of all that went down doing their duty,
Reminiscent of them, twined from all intrepid
young or old,
A pennant universal, subtly waving all the time,
all brave sailors,
All seas, all ships.
the Beach at Night, alone
(Baritone / Chorus)
On the beach at night alone,
As the old mother sways her to and fro singing
As I watch the bright stars shining,
I think a thought of the clef of
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
All nations, all identities that have existed
All lives and deaths, all of the past, present, future,
This vast interlude spans them,
always has spanned,
And shall forever span them and shall compactly
and enclose them.
After the sea-ship, after the whistling winds,
After the white-gray sails taut to their
Below, a myriad, myriad waves hastening,
up their necks,
Tending in ceaseless flow toward the track
Waves of the ocean bubbling and gurgling,
Waves, undulating waves, liquid, uneven,
Toward that whirling current, laughing
buoyant with curves,
Where the great vessel sailing and tacking
Larger and smaller waves in the spread of
ocean yearnfully flowing,
The wake of the sea-ship after she passes,
and frolicsome under the sun,
A motley procession with many a fleck
foam and many fragments,
Following the stately and rapid ship,
the wake following.
(Baritone / Soprano / Chorus)
O vast Rondure, swimming in space,
Covered all over with visible power and beauty,
Alternate light and day and the teeming
Unspeakable high processions of sun and moon
countless stars above,
Below, the manifold grass and waters,
With inscrutable purpose, some hidden
Now first it seems my thought begins to span thee.
Down from the gardens of Asia descending,
Adam and Eve appear, then their myriad
Wandering, yearning, with restless explorations,
questionings, baffled, formless, feverish,
never-happy hearts, with that sad
“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,
shall be carried out,
Perhaps even now the time has arrived.
After the seas are all crossed,
After the great captains have accomplished
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
ecstasy to sail,
Amid the wafting winds
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,
walking in the night,
Thoughts, silent thoughts, of Time and Space
Death, like water flowing,
Bear me indeed as though regions infinite,
Whose air I breathe, whose ripples hear,
me all over,
Bathe me, O God, in thee, mounting to thee,
I and my soul to range in range of thee.
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
But that I, turning, call to thee,
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,
thou with me,
For we are bound, where mariner has not
dared to go,
And we will risk the ship, ourselves and all.
O my brave Soul!
O farther, farther sail!
O darling joy, but safe!
Are they not all the seas of God?
O farther, farther, farther sail!
Last Albums Viewed
VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Symphony No. 1, "A Sea Symphony"