Ralph Vaughan Williams

A Sea Symphony

Explained using the 5-4-3-2-1 Method

Duration: Approx. 70 Minutes
Genre: Symphony Cantata
Time of Creation: 1903–1909
World Premiere: 12 October 1910 (Leeds)

Table of Contents

Vaughan Williams' Sea Symphony in 5 Sentences

With his Sea Symphony, the 38-year-old Ralph Vaughan Williams made his first public appearance with a major work, and with conceivably major consequences: Since the Sea Symphony has unusually large dimensions for a first work (70 minutes playing time, large orchestra, chorus and soloists), its premiere led to English symphonic music suddenly becoming the focus of worldwide interest. The duration of the work can be explained by the fact that Vaughan Williams first worked for several years on individual songs for chorus and orchestra, which he only later compiled into the Sea Symphony. Since Vaughan Williams uses a choir, the Sea Symphony is called a symphonic cantata – just like Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, with the difference that Vaughan Williams uses the choir throughout and not only in the final movement like Beethoven. Various influences that shaped Vaughan Williams’ compositional style result in the composition being very heterogeneous and multi-faceted (for more on this, see the “Questions and Answers” below).

Note: This work belongs to the Classical Music Top 100.

4 Highlights from Vaughan Williams' Sea Symphony

Highlight 1: Unity in diversity – Vaughan Williams' common thread

In order to keep the many heterogeneous influences together, Vaughan Williams takes great care to use certain elements as a “common thread” throughout the symphony. The Sea Symphony begins with one of these elements: a brass fanfare answered by the chorus, whereupon the full orchestra kicks in at the word “sea:”

Highlight 2: a "scaffolding" of old structures 1/2

Of course, Vaughan Williams explores much new musical territory in his Sea Symphony. Nevertheless, he still follows the traditional “classical-romantic” symphony in the major structure. That is, the Sea Symphony consists of four movements, with the second movement being a slow movement….

Highlight 3: a "scaffolding" of old structures 2/2

…and the third movement corresponding to the “classical-romantic” scherzo:

Highlight 4: a monumental final movement

The last movement of the Sea Symphony alone lasts almost as long as all the preceding movements combined. One is reminded a bit of the proportions of some Mahler symphonies…In any case, it is wonderful how Vaughan Williams lets the music fade away into the distance at the end:

3 Questions and Answers about Vaughan Williams' Sea Symphony

Question 1: What text is sung in Vaughan Williams' Sea Symphony?

In the Sea Symphony, Vaughan Williams set poems from “Leaves of Grass,” the major work by U.S. poet Walt Whitman.

Question 2: What influences were formative for Ralph Vaughan Williams when he wrote his Sea Symphony?

First of all, works that had the sea as their theme were quite “in” at the beginning of the 20th century – Debussy’s “La Mer” might be the most famous example. Further, Vaughan Williams had studied briefly (but fiercely) with Maurice Ravel in Paris in 1908, whose harmonies and instrumentation he used as the basis for his own unique style (see Ravel’s quote below).

Question 3: Who conducted the world premiere of Vaughan Williams' Sea Symphony?

The first performance of the Sea Symphony was conducted by Vaughan Williams himself, on his 38th birthday.

2 Recommended Recordings of Vaughan Williams' Sea Symphony

Recording 1: SWR Symphony Orchestra, Gaechinger Cantorey, Laura Aikin, Michael Nagy, Dennis Russell Davies (live, 2018)

I think that Vaughan Williams’ symphonies should be played more often. Today, they are most likely to be part of the extended standard repertoire in the UK. That makes it all the more exciting to hear one of the rare non-British interpretations of Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony, for example this one with the SWR Symphony Orchestra conducted by Dennis Russell Davies:

Recording 2: RCM Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Madeleine Boreham, Redmond Sanders, Adrian Partington (live, 2022)

That Vaughan Williams’ importance is greater in Britain is evident from the fact that his monumental works are already performed at the college level there. The following recording of the Sea Symphony was made at the Royal College of Music (London) on the occasion of Vaughan Williams’ 150th birthday:

1 Quote about Vaughan Williams' Sea Symphony

Vaughan Williams is the only one of my students who does not compose as I do.

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