“A Sea Symphony” from Vaughan Williams

Vaughan Williams in 1919 by William Rothenstein(Photo: Wikipedia)
Vaughan Williams in 1919 by William Rothenstein(Photo: Wikipedia)

On Symphony @ 7 this evening, another rarely heard work for our “Summer Stretch” series: A Sea Symphony, Symphony No. 1 of Ralph Vaughan Williams. 

On Monday evenings, we’ve been presenting longer pieces during our two hour presentations, and I don’t remember when we aired this last.  It’s about time for a voyage with this eminent British composer in his first symphonic outing.

A Sea Symphony is a choral symphony written between 1903 and 1909 and is quite an impressive debut from the 30 year old composer. 

Considering England’s rich literary tradition and love of choral singing, it might not be too surprising that Vaughan Williams chose this form, but it is surprising that he chose American Walt Whitman’s collection of poetry Leaves of Grass as his text.  Whitman’s poetry was not that well known in England at the time, but surely the composer was attracted to the mystical blending of the spiritual and human that is so typical of Whitman and perhaps akin to Vaughan Williams own sensibilities.

A Sea Symphony, as the composer titled his first symphony, is in four movements:

  1. A Song for All Seas (baritone, soprano and chorus)
  2. On the Beach at Night, Alone (baritone and chorus)
  3. Scherzo: The Waves (chorus)
  4. The Explorers (baritone, soprano and chorus)

The two symphonies of Edward Elgar from around the same time are often considered the birth of the English symphony in the 20th Century. However this major work from Vaughan Williams, who went on to write eight more symphonies in his long life, is a major contribution to British music for its large symphonic form and blending of words and music. 

You can hear A Sea Symphony, Symphony No. 1 in its entirety this evening on Symphony @ 7.