R Vaughan Williams – A Sea Symphony

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872 – 1958): English composer; founder of the nationalist movement in English music.
Vaughan Williams was born to a well-to-do family with strong moral views and a progressive social life. Throughout his life he sought to be of service to his fellow citizens, and believed in making music as available as possible to everybody. He wrote many works for amateur and student performance. He was musically a late developer, not finding his true voice until his late thirties. Vaughan Williams studied at Trinity College, Cambridge, and in London at the Royal College of Music under two major figures of the late 19th-century renaissance of English music, Sir Charles Stanford and Sir Hubert Parry. In 1897–98 he studied in Berlin under the noted composer Max Bruch. About 1903 he began to collect folk songs, and in 1904–06 he was musical editor of The English Hymnal, for which he wrote his celebrated “Sine Nomine” (“For All the Saints”). His studies in 1907–1908 with the French composer Maurice Ravel helped him clarify the textures of his music and free it from Teutonic influences. After World War I, he became professor of composition at the Royal College of Music.

A Sea Symphony started out in 1903 as a song-cycle, The Ocean, but evolved into a large-scale symphonic work which was published in 1909 as A Sea Symphony. The composer himself conducted its first performance at the Leeds Festival in 1910. During the long gestation period of the work, Vaughan Williams spent time in the British Museum studying the scores of Elgar’s Enigma Variations and The Dream of Gerontius. In retrospect he freely admitted the influence of Gerontius on his Sea Symphony, especially in the last movement. Vaughan Williams’ period of studying with Maurice Ravel in Paris, was intense and he returned inspired and with renewed creative energies. Ravel’s influence may have helped to bring out Vaughan Williams’s ability to paint with music, a defining feature of his first symphony with its vivid depiction of the sea. For A Sea Symphony Vaughan Williams used lines from five poems by Walt Whitman: four from Whitman’s collection Leaves of Grass and one from his Passage to India. He took great liberties in choosing which lines of verse to use and which ones to leave out; he changed the order of verses and even altered words, guided mainly by his own compositional intentions and personal vision. “The nature of Whitman’s texts is cosmic, dealing with the mysterious uncertainties of life”, writes Paul Holmes, “and Vaughan Williams provides music with an appropriate mystical feel. This symphony gazes at the sea but realises it is a symbol for the infinite”. The journey of the human soul depicted in A Sea Symphony ends with the ship of life slowly and calmly disappearing over the horizon into the unknown.

Soloists: Ondelwa Martins, soprano; Chris Vale, baritone.

Conducted by Richard Cock.

Performance supported by the Mzansi National Philharmonic Orchestra


However, to get you excited about the work, below is a video of the work performed by the SWR Symphonieorchester.

October 15, 2023 3:00 pm - 5:00 pm
Linder Auditorium