Ralph Vaughan Williams, A Sea Symphony
By Byron Adams
Born October 10, 1872, in Down Ampney, England
Died August 26, 1958, in London
Composed in 1903–09
Premiered on October 12, 1910 at the Leeds Festival, England
Performance Time: Approximately 70 minutes
In 1892, Bertrand Russell recommended Walt Whitman’s poetry to a fellow undergraduate at Trinity College, Cambridge: the aspiring young composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. Whitman’s poetry was well known in Britain by that time. William Michael Rossetti, brother of both Christina and Dante Gabriel, published a bowdlerized selection of verse drawn from the fourth edition of Leaves of Grass in 1868. Whitman later repudiated these excisions, exclaiming, “Damn the expurgated books! I say damn them!”
Vaughan Williams, who had been searching for poetry that transcended the parlor-bound interiority of much Victorian verse, recognized at once that Whitman’s celebration of panoramic vistas and pantheistic rapture was exactly what he needed in order to escape from the world of polite oratorios, cantatas, and anthems that made up the bulk of British choral music in the 1890s. While his teachers Charles Villiers Stanford and Charles Wood had tentatively begun setting Whitman’s poetry at the end of the nineteenth century, Vaughan Williams’ passionate love of this verse—he carried a pocket volume of Whitman into the trenches during the First World War—resulted in a series of visionary scores. His “choral song,” Toward the Unknown Region, was successfully performed at the Leeds Festival in 1907; three years later, his massive and original choral symphony, A Sea Symphony, was premiered at the same festival, conducted by its nervous composer on October 12, his thirty-eighth birthday.
Despite the precedent of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Mahler’s Second and Third Symphonies, there was no choral symphony as such by a British composer when Vaughan Williams began to sketch A Sea Symphony in 1903. Unlike its German predecessors, the chorus and vocal soloists were integral parts of Vaughan Williams’ conception of all four movements from the beginning and pervade the texture throughout. The majestic opening is like the sudden revelation of a teeming seascape that evokes Turner’s grandiose nautical canvases. A quotation from Elgar’s oratorio The Dream of Gerontius, at the words “And on its limitless, heaving breast,” announces that this symphony is not mere tone-painting, but rather a transformative voyage of the spirit into transcendent and mysterious realms.
Byron Adams is a Professor of Musicology at the University of California, Riverside.