Vaughan Williams Symphony no.1 "A Sea Symphony" (1903 - 9)

A Sea Symphony is a remarkably evocative piece of music by Ralph Vaughan Williams for a large choir, soprano and baritone soloists and orchestra.

The text is from Walt Whitman's collection "Leaves of Grass". This is perfect for Vaughan Williams, encompassing everything from descriptions of ships at sea, daring explorers and innovators, introspection on the meaning of progress, the Second Coming, and a transcendent final voyage to the afterlife. Bertrand Russell introduced Vaughan Williams to the poet's work while they were both undergraduates at Cambridge.

The piece is a true choral symphony, where the choir leads the themes and drives the action, rather than merely intoning the words and providing a bit of vocal colour; it is more like an oratorio than a symphony. It is Vaughan Williams' first symphonic work, and such was his lack of confidence in the area that he returned to study under Ravel in Paris for 3 months before he felt able to complete it. It was premiered in 1910 at the Leeds Festival.

There are four movements. "A Song for all Seas, all Ships", "On the Beach at night, Alone", "The Waves", and "The Explorers". The first is an introduction, dealing with the sea, sailing ships and steamers, sailors and flags. The second is a meditation on the nature of the universe and human life's place within it. The third is self-explanatory, and the fourth is on progress, death and an analogy between a voyage of exploration and the journey into the afterlife.

It's enduring appeal can be heard in many subsequent pieces on a nautical theme. Vaughan William's muscial language of the sea has influenced those who came after him.

Whitman's text follows, with a description of Vaughan William's scoring, intercut with URLs for realaudio streams of bits of the music.

A Sea Symphony

I. A Song for all Seas, all Ships

Text from "Song of the Exposition" and "Song for All Seas, All Ships"
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.

The piece begins with a trumpet fanfare, a thrilling silence, and the chorus entry; at first unaccompanied, and then rejoined with a splash of cymbals and a rising line from the strings. The affect is to grab the attention and hold it. The sail's movement is conveyed in triplets. The treatment of the steamers is complete with chugging sting playing and braying brass. The word "port" is sung in a chord reminiscent of a ship's horn. Then the fanfare theme re-emerges and the choir beholds the sea again, more emphatically then before, and a full third higher.

A quieter orchestral section then builds into a light, flute-led jaunty hornpipe; now it is the turn of the baritone soloist.

Today 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,
The choir and baritone alternate their way through these lines, the choir repeating, the orchestra remaining in jaunty mode. The ringing of a triangle cuts through much of this section, which ends abruptly, the orchestra dying away to reveal the baritone in a more reflective mood. Again, the choir repeat; this time in a simple harmony, and with identical, speech-like rhythm- in fact, much like an Anglican chant. The orchestration is plain, building to the "surge".
And out of these a chant for the sailors of all nations,
Fitful, like a surge.
The soloist sings the next two lines over a chorus shifting around chromatically with the words "fitful like a surge". It is easy to imagine the sea-faring heroes referred to being tossed around on the oceans. The commendation that "fate can never surprise nor death dismay" sees a return to the chant-like arrangement, and the sea "pickest and cullest the race" to the disorienting, surging shifts from before.
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.

A restatement of the fanfare is then followed by a timpani roll, split by the first appearance of the soprano soloist. What follows is reminiscent of the very beginning of the movement, with choir and soprano.
Flaunt out, O sea, your separate flags of nations!
Flaunt out visible as ever the various flags and ship-signals!

The next lines are a sort of fugue, building to the "emblem of man elate above death". Each voice takes a turn at leading, and is accompanied by the others, repeating what has gone before. The tenors lead the charge into another celebration of the "emblem of man", with rocketing brass and timpani.

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 of all that went down doing their duty,
Reminiscent of them, twined from all intrepid captains young or old,

The final lines are led by the baritone and soprano soloists, with a restatement of the "One flag above all the rest" concept featuring prominently, before chorus splits into eight parts to finish the movement with a delicate, shimmering harmony which the soprano wafts lightly above.

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

II. On the Beach at Night Alone

Text from "On the Beach at Night Alone"

This movement was the first to be tackled by Vaughan Williams. It begins with a low wind-led orchestral introduction in 3/4 time. ( The baritone leads a semi-chorus of altos through the first verse. The orchestration is rumbly and subdued. Triplets are used to convey the swaying of the "old mother", and shuddering bowing in the strings stands for the stars.
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.
The next verse is slightly more lively. It is introduced and supported by a walking bass line. The full chorus now joins the soloist in a more equal partnership. It crescendos, reaching a peak at "all living bodies". A creepy choral arrangement is used for the "All, nations; all identities", but tellingly the chorus and soloist come together in unison for "all of the past, present and future". The orchestra drops out completely as the choir introduces the "vast interlude", picking up at the end of each phrase. A majestic orchestral line follows with crashing cymbals; they have been convinced that the universe is a massive, stately place.
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 interlude spans them, and always has spanned,
And shall forever span them and shall compactly hold and enclose them.
The movement ends with a repeat of the first lines, and some development of their musical themes by the orchestra, sans voices. We imagine the poet under the stars, deep in thought.

III. Scherzo: The Waves

Text from "After the Sea-ship", taken in its entirety.

This movement is most directly concerned with the sea itself. To my taste, it is the weakest, but there is still much to enjoy here.

Interspersed with abrupt orchestral stabs, the sopranos and altos enter, on the first two lines. They are joined on the next two by the tenors and basses. The words of the first line are repeated often by both groups of singers here. The orchestration gallops along, with lots of brass in triplets.
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,

Now the mood changes a little. The next line is stated in the shifting chromatic style that has been used in the first movement. Here again it describes the ferment of the sea. After a nine-bar descending line of string-triplets, the choir re-enter, in eight parts one voice at a time, starting from the lowest, on "Waves". This happens twice, crescendoing with the sopranos finishing on the "undulating waves". The rest of this line is sung by the top voices over a soft and rapid set of arpeggios played six notes to the beat. The first phrase of the next line is sung to discords, but "laughing and buoyant" is sung joyfully, mostly in unison, with repeated notes serving as a hearty "ha ha ha ha". This more robust music continues, becoming majestic, pomp-filled, and well, very British. The clarity only really dies away again at "sun".

Now many of the themes from the rest of this movement are repeated- both the chaotic and the regal.

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,

The words "A motley procession" are repeated with increasing, pitch and urgency driving us through the rest of that line and once more into unison to gather the vocal forces for a fanfare-like conclusion, with large interval-jumps and plenty of percussion.

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

Text from "A Passage to India"

This is my very favourite movement, and one of my favourite pieces of choral music. Here the emotional intensity is cranked up, and the words and music combine most powerfully.

The movement begins quietly. The first line is sung by all voices in union; with a very simple and subtle accompaniment. A sense of wonder at the world develops and continues, boldening, into the third line. The hitherto simple harmonies are twisted into unfamiliar dissonant shapes for "the teaming spiritual darkness", but soon all is back in the serene mood of the beginning. The horns support the melody.

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,

The next line is sung in unison, on only a few pitches, shifting the interest onto the rhythm and the words, like plainchant. The orchestra play a stirring interlude, developing some of the melody from before. The final line is sung in six voices, unaccompanied and becoming very soft. The listener feels the poet's awe at seeming to comprehend some facet of creation.

With inscrutable purpose, some hidden prophetic intention,
Now first it seems my thought begins to span thee.

No less than the story of mankind's development follows (if slightly abridged). The whole section up to the quotation is sung simply by the tenors and basses, at first in unison, over a tentative orchestra filled with disjoint winds and low pizzicato strings. By line three, the bass has become a flowing, walking line supporting a rich brass harmony. The singers' line becomes separated out in time, but builds to "feverish". The rest of the line is sung first by tenors, then by basses, like a plaintive wail. By now the walking bass has taken to marching.

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?"

The section concludes with the quotation above, as a four part unaccompanied phrase from the sopranos and altos. The harmony is affecting and weird, and their tone is despairing. The time signature has switched to 3/2, which jars after so much 4/4.

Now the action shifts into 2/2 time. The marching bass line plays its notes in pairs once more, but now it feels more like a run. The next three lines are sung again by tenors and basses, in unison, with increasing urgency. Then the sops and altos rejoin with their questions from before, still demanding, still unanswered and a whole tone lower.

Ah who shall soothe these feverish children?
Who justify these restless explorations?
Who speak the secret of the impassive earth?

Now work begins on formulating an answer to these problems. The tenor and bass remind the listener that questioning and dissatisfaction are part of the "first intent", and are soon joined in this by the upper voices. The poet speculates that the last days must be upon us as the seas are all known, and every conceivable technology has been invented. The scoring here expresses both the terror and excitement of such a concept. All that could remain would be the second coming. These lines are what the movement has been building up to since the mention of Adam and Eve. The word "finally" is repeated 3 times, increasing in volume and harmonic complexity. The line climaxes at "poet", with a thunderous thump of the drum, and again at "God". Whitman describes the son of God as a poet and a singer (which I suppose flatters him and a good proportion of the the performers!). This gives Vaughan Williams an excuse for a fantastic fugue on the word "singing", each voice part leading off to develop a simple theme. These are joyful and supported by exultant playing on from the brass and woodwinds. The fugue ends as the voices come together for "songs", and the orchestra stops abruptly so we can admire the chorus concluding this section with a beautiful harmonic restatement of "Singing his songs".

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.

The orchestra take the helm again, repeating the "singing" theme in a very rushing, surging, nautical arrangement. The next two verses form a duet for the baritone and soprano soloists. The orchestration here is led by the strings, with the winds providing the descriptive bubbling ornaments. In the first of these solo verses, the soloists overlap their lines, coming together for "Caroling free...".

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.

Another orchestral interlude takes us into the next verse, which is more reflective in character. The phrasing from "Whose air I breathe..." is shorter, and the orchestration plainer. These leads us to a time signature change for the next line. The listener is lead to feel that something is about to happen.

O Soul thou pleasest me, I thee,
Sailing these seas or on the hills, or walking in the night,
Thoughts, silent thoughts, of Time and Space and Death, like water flowing,
Bear me indeed as though 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.

The bass and soprano begin the next verse in unison, and are joined by the chorus, repeating their words in harmony. This process begins loud, with crashing cymbals; then drops away to finish fortissimo again at "centre of them"; each note on the last phrase smashed home by a blast of trumpets and thump of percussion. The pace is slow, time is given to annunciate every word clearly. The time signature is now 4/4 again, and the orchestra burbles away in triplets.
O thou transcendent,
Nameless, the fibre and the breath,
Light of the light, shedding forth universes, thou centre of them.

The next section is for the baritone soloist only. The first two lines are fearful and stunted, but the remainder regain the flowing style of the duet, only accented chords on "matest" and "smilest", remind us of the awe of the situation.

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.
For me, what follows is the core of the piece. The chorus begins in harmony, the orchestra is silent. The soprano cuts in with an "Away", the baritone with an "away, O soul!", and the cry is taken up by each voice of the chorus in succession. The orchestra has gone back into chirpy Jack Tar mode. The affect is as of instructions being called out on a large sailing ship and repeated by the crew. One can almost see them in the rigging. The rest of the instructions filter through in similar manner, the pace quickening, the gaps between repetitions shrinking.
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!

Now the ship (which I read as the poet's soul, sailing off happily into the mysterious seas of the afterlife) moves out. The choir calls "Sail forth!, and the orchestra answers with a grand, stately phrase. We return to the duet style from before, this time with the choir's support. The climax of this section is as the choir come together to repeat "steer for the deep waters only", and concludes with several more exclamations of "Sail forth!". It's lump-in-throat time.

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.

The soloists rejoin for the conclusion of the piece, singing over the choir. The choir forms an accompaniment with the words "farther, farther sail", the rhythm and phrasing suggesting the gentle, lapping wavelets of a calm sea.

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!

After the choir and chorus fade away, the orchestra finishes almost imperceptibly with the double basses bowing like a far-distant fog horn. The ship has sailed out of our sight- and perhaps out of our world.

  • the Stainer Bell edition of the Vocal Score.
  • the 1988 recording by the Liverpool Philharmonic Chorus and Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under Vernon Handley, and its cover notes.
  • My own performance of the piece in 1998 with the Imperial College Union Choir.
  • (includes real audio clips)
  • (more clips from the Vaughan Williams Society)

Copyright (c) 2002 KENNETH KILFEDDER

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