Vaughan Williams discovers Walt Whitman and studies with Maurice Ravel, who both influence his first great orchestral works. This continuously choral symphony sets words from Walt Whitman’s Sea Drift and Passage to India, abridged by the composer. The four movements relate to an expanded classical symphonic design of opening Allegro, slow movement, Scherzo, and Finale. Their titles are: ‘A Song for All Seas, All Ships’, ‘On the Beach at Night Alone’, ‘The Waves’, and ‘The Explorers’.
Premiere: October 1910
Leeds Town Hall
Leeds Festival Chorus/Orchestra
On 12 October 1910, his 38th birthday, Ralph Vaughan Williams (VW) stepped onto the podium in Leeds Town Hall to conduct the Leeds Festival Chorus and Orchestra in the first performance of his Sea Symphony. The journey towards the self-knowledge to achieve this epic masterwork had been long and unpredictable. VW had been no prodigy, and his childhood musical progress seems to have owed as much to application as to natural facility.
At Trinity College, Cambridge, he read history while also studying at the Royal College of Music in London – first with Charles Wood, then with Charles Stanford. ‘Stanford was a great teacher,’ he later wrote. ‘But I believe I was unteachable.’
Marriage to the reserved and beautiful Adeline Fisher was followed by many years of musical apprenticeship in London where, despite a family allowance that meant he did not need to earn a living, VW worked conscientiously as a church organist and choral conductor.
Much energy was also going into collecting English folksongs. He was beginning to sense how the melodic qualities of this treasure house of material could generate the possibility of larger orchestral forms, and a musical voice of uncanny vividness began to emerge in In the Fen Country (1904) and the fetchingly beautiful Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1 (1906). Other factors were coming together, too. Toward the Unknown Region (1907) was the first product of a life-changing encounter with the verse of Walt Whitman and its tone of aspirational, mind-expanding spiritual adventure. Meanwhile, the wistful regretfulness of Whitman’s polar opposite among poets, AE Housman, inspired another major achievement: the chamber song-cycle On Wenlock Edge (1909).
By now the 30-something composer, still sensing a need to learn, had taken himself to Berlin to study with Max Bruch, then to Paris. There, Maurice Ravel gave his English pupil’s music what Vaughan Williams later liked to describe as some ‘French polish’. Ravel’s teaching amounted to a lot more than ‘polish’: it was the decisive element that finally set VW’s imagination free to roam on the largest scale. He recalled how the French master-composer showed him ‘how to orchestrate in points of colour rather than in lines’.
A Sea Symphony had begun life as The Ocean in 1903. So the six years of its creation charted the composer’s parallel journey of self-discovery – by way of the first movement’s broad choral and orchestral strokes (a sturdy tribute to Stanford and Parry), and towards the spiritual immensities searched out with shimmering, Ravel-inspired mastery in the symphony’s finale, ‘The Explorers’. The unforgettable setting of Whitman’s invocation to ‘Steer for the deep waters only’ made its own point: here was a composer now fully equipped to do so.
Isobel Bailie (soprano), John Cameron (baritone)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/ Adrian Boult
Decca 473 2412 (5 discs)