About this Recording
8.557059 - VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Symphony No. 1, "A Sea Symphony"
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Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)

A Sea Symphony (Symphony No. 1)


Several first symphonies have caused their composers much trouble, not least that by Brahms, who laboured for over two decades to bring his C minor Symphony to fruition. The difficulty, in that instance, of furthering an Austro-German symphonic tradition still under the shadow of Beethoven is pertinent when considering A Sea Symphony, the first symphony (though not designated as such) by Ralph Vaughan Williams. When he began it in 1903, the composer was in his early thirties, with a number of songs, chamber works and short orchestral pieces to his name, and little in the way of a national reputation. Completed in 1909, and successfully performed for the first time at the Leeds Festival the following year, the work, together with the Tallis Fantasia, first performed at the Three Choirs Festival only weeks before, confirmed the arrival of Vaughan Williams on the national stage.


Parallel to the composer’s evolving of a personal musical idiom went his desire to free English music from the Austro-German framework still prevalent in the music of Parry, Stanford and Elgar. The influence of Parry’s choral odes, as well as Stanford’s Songs of the Sea and Elgar’s Sea Pictures, is intermittently evident, while the latter’s The Dream of Gerontius had set a new precedent for a symphonically conceived oratorio, but the combining of high art and folk-inflected music in A Sea Symphony marks a radical departure, while the setting of verses by Walt Whitman (Leaves of Grass in the first three movements, Passage to India in the finale) reinforces the sense of an artistic new dawn such as remained constant in Vaughan Williams’ thinking for the next half century.


A choral symphony in the lineage of Mendelssohn rather than Beethoven, the formal construction of A Sea Symphony, with its four movements and sense of tonal closure, nonetheless draws directly on symphonic precedent. The first movement, A Song for all Seas, all Ships, starts with a choral paragraph of breathtaking immediacy, the feeling of new vistas effortlessly evoked. The main part begins with the “rude brief recitative” sung by the baritone in shanty-like strains and enthusiastically echoed by the chorus. Contrast follows with the lyrical “chant for the sailors”, rising in intensity until the opening brass fanfare is recalled and the soprano makes a dramatic entrance at “Flaunt out O seas” - marking the onset of the opulent central section. A pensive choral passage centred on the “Tokens of all brave captains” heralds a reprise of the opening music, soloists and chorus in a series of intensifying exchanges which culminate in the reiterated statement “one flag above all the rest”. The close, however, recollects the universality of Whitman’s message in a mood of tranquillity.


A ruminative calm persists through the second movement, On the Beach at Night alone, a nocturne whose harmonic ambiguity provides a sombre context for this setting entrusted to the baritone. A more robust central section, its main theme warmly set out by horns over pizzicato strings, reaches an affirmative choral climax, before the introspective opening is recalled in largely orchestral terms.


The third movement, The Waves, is a Scherzo which makes considerable demands on the chorus in its contrapuntal intricacy. The work’s opening fanfare is recalled, and two folk-songs, The Golden Vanity and The Bold Princess Royal, alluded to in this scintillating depiction of the sea as a natural phenomenon. A noble theme evoking a great sea-going vessel twice provides contrast, before the movement drives to its defiant conclusion.


The Explorers is an apt title for the large-scale fourth movement, a heartfelt summation of the composer’s musical and spiritual development. The opening, featuring the words “O vast Rondure swimming in space”, sets the exalted tone of much that follows. A modal processional evokes the creation of man, leading to a rarefied setting of “Wherefore unsatisfied soul” and the determined response “Yet soul be sure”, together defining the philosophical goal of the whole work. A triumphal culmination is built around the word “singing”, the soloists entering impulsively at “O we can wait no longer” to add a more human dimension. The chorus re-enters at “O thou transcendent”, then at “Away O Soul” the music irrupts in a frenzy of shanty rhythms as the ship/soul sets sail. Yet the outburst is cut short: the work ending with a calm depiction of the ship vanishing over the horizon, and the implicit journeying of the soul toward those unknown regions on earth as of the human mind.


Richard Whitehouse


1          A Song for all Seas, all Ships

            (Baritone / Soprano / Chorus)


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.



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,

And out of these a chant for the sailors

            of all nations,

Fitful, like a surge.

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.



Flaunt out, O sea, your separate flags of nations!

Flaunt out visible as ever the various flags

            and ship-signals!

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,



A pennant universal, subtly waving all the time,

            o’er all brave sailors,

All seas, all ships.


2          On the Beach at Night, alone

(Baritone / Chorus)


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.

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.


3          Scherzo: The Waves



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,

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,

A motley procession with many a fleck

            of foam and many fragments,

Following the stately and rapid ship,

            in the wake following.


4          The Explorers

(Baritone / Soprano / Chorus)


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,

With inscrutable purpose, some hidden

            prophetic intention,

Now first it seems my thought begins to span thee.


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?”


Ah who shall soothe these feverish children?

Who justify these restless explorations?

Who speak the secret of the impassive earth?

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.


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.

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.


O thou transcendent,

Nameless, the fibre and the breath,

Light of the light, shedding forth universes,

             thou centre of them.

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.

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!

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.

O my brave Soul!

O farther, farther sail!

O darling joy, but safe!

Are they not all the seas of God?

O farther, farther, farther sail!




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