Thursday, July 23, 2009

A Sea Symphony by Ralph Vaughan Williams


Ralph Vaughan Williams' First Symphony, a choral one. This is a good performance by Andre Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra and Choir.It is a remarkably evocative piece of music. The symphony is scored for a large choir, soprano, baritone and orchestra. It is the first complete choral symphony in that each movement is written for vocal soloists, choir and orchestra. The text is from Walt Whitman's 'Leaves of Grass'. Bertrand Russell introduced Vaughan Williams to Walt Whitman's work while they were studying at Cambridge. The work was premiered at the Leeds Festival in 1910 with Vaughan Williams conducting.
The symphony begins with a trumpet fanfare, a thrilling silence before the chorus' entry. At first unaccompanied but later rejoined with a crash of cymbals.The treatment of the steamers is complete with chugging string playing and braying brass reflecting on the title, 'A song for all Seas, all Ships'. The second movement, Largo, is 'On the Beach at Night Alone'. It begins with a low wind-led orchestral introduction with plucking in the bass. Here, we imagine the poet under the stars deep in thought at the beach with quiet rhythm of the sedate waves. The third movement is the Scherzo ' Waves'. This movement is most directly concerned with the sea itself. The scherzo is repeated with increasing pitch and urgency driving us once more into unison to gather the vocal forces for a fanfare conclusion with large interval jumps and lot of percussion. The fourth movement, 'Explorers' is actually hinting at a Passage to India. Here, the emotional intensity is cranked up and the words and music combine most powerfully. The movement concludes after the choir fades away, the orchestra finishes with the double basses bowing like a distant fog horn. The ship sails out of our sight and out of our world. Andre Pevin's reading with the London Symphony dating back to 1970 still sounds good.

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