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Discover Vaughan Williams’ A Sea Symphony 

May 14, 2024

Discover Vaughan Williams’ A Sea Symphony 

Behold, the Sea itself!  

From the very first bars of Vaughan Williams’ grand musical voyage, A Sea Symphony engulfs listeners in pure symphonic grandeur. The sung word dominates the piece from beginning to end, with the orchestra playing a complimentary role to the vocalists throughout. One of the first symphonies in which a choir is used throughout the work as an integral part of the musical texture, A Sea Symphony helped set the stage for a new era of symphonic and choral music in Britain during the first half of the 20th century. 

Let us begin where Vaughan Williams began — with Whitman’s celebrated poetry collection, Leaves of Grass. Though Whitman’s poems were little known in England at the time, Vaughan Williams was attracted to them for their ability to transcend both metaphysical and humanist perspectives. The poet’s use of free verse was also beginning to make waves among composers, where fluidity of structure was beginning to be more attractive than traditional, metrical settings of text.  

Walt Whitman had a uniquely American, sometimes controversial, and often revered perspective on life. Perhaps more than any other visionary writer of mid-19th-century America, Whitman had a deep faith in democracy, and an unusual knack for recognizing its virtue in the common people. Leaves of Grass accomplishes three tasks: exploration and celebration of individuality and personality; a eulogy for a budding nation; and poetic expression of thoughts on life’s great enduring mysteries: life, death, and rebirth. It was the second of these three points that drew Vaughan Williams’ magnificent musical representation.  

 No one knows why Vaughan Williams chose Whitman’s poetry for his oceanic setting, but Ursula Vaughan Williams, in her biography of her husband, wrote: 

“…Whitman challenged English attention as a crusader, a rebel against the status quo, who furnished to a few ardent minds a means for both social and personal improvement. It was as a moralist and a prophet rather than as an artist that he threw the gauntlet to the English, and English recruits marched to its banner because they found in Leaves of Grass disturbing intimations of a new social dispensation, a renovated humanity, deriving its vitality from the transcendent personal magnetism that the poet was said to exemplify in his own life.” 

More than a simple musical seascape, this Symphony concerns itself with some of the basic questions of existence that Whitman voiced with such force and grandeur. “In A Sea Symphony,” noted Vaughan Williams’ biographer James Day, “the sea itself is a symbol — of the innermost self that man can and must discover and explore, just as he explores the sea.” 

Discover more about A Sea Symphony and what makes it a remarkable work in the orchestral and choral repertoire:

Innovative Fusion of Forms

A Sea Symphony blends the traditional symphonic form with a choral symphony, integrating the orchestra and chorus throughout the entire piece rather than just in specific movements or sections. This combination creates a powerful and expansive sound that captures the majesty and mystery of the sea. 

Use of Walt Whitman’s Poetry

Whitman’s transcendental and expansive vision of humanity and nature perfectly complements Vaughan Williams’ sweeping musical language, bringing a profound philosophical depth to the work. 

Lyrical and Expressive Melodies

The symphony is filled with beautiful and memorable melodies. Vaughan Williams’ ability to create lyrical and expressive themes adds an emotional richness to the music, making it both moving and accessible to listeners. 

Rich Orchestration

Vaughan Williams’ orchestration A Sea Symphony is masterful. He uses the full range of the orchestra to evoke the vastness of the sea, the power of waves, and the serenity of open waters. His use of color and texture is highly effective in painting vivid musical portraits. 

Innovative Harmonies

Vaughan Williams employs innovative harmonies that were ahead of their time. His use of modal harmonies and complex chord structures gives the music a unique and modern sound while still being rooted in traditional forms. 

Epic Scale and Structure

The symphony is grand in both scale and structure. Its four movements span a wide range of moods and themes, from the heroic and majestic to the introspective and spiritual. The first movement, “A Song for All Seas, All Ships,” is particularly monumental, setting the tone for the entire work. 

Nationalistic Elements

While Vaughan Williams was influenced by various musical traditions, A Sea Symphony also reflects his interest in English folk music and national identity. This element adds a distinctive flavor to the symphony, connecting it to the broader tradition of English music. 

Emphasis on Universal Themes

The symphony’s themes are universal, touching on exploration, the human spirit, and the relationship between humanity and nature. These timeless themes will resonate with audiences, making the work both profound and relatable. 

Hear A Sea Symphony Live

A Sea Symphony is celebrated for its ambitious scope, masterful integration of choral and orchestral forces, and its deep emotional and philosophical impact. It stands as a testament to Vaughan Williams’ creativity and his ability to capture the grandeur of the natural world through music. Don’t miss your chance to witness this incredible work with the Colorado Symphony and Chorus May 18-19, 2024 at Boettcher Concert Hall.

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