Building a Library
A SEA SYMPHONY Ralph Vaughan Williams One of the most vivid musical portrayals of the ocean captivates our reviewer Terry Blain, who explores the finest recordings of Vaughan Williams’s maritime symphony
Terry Blain listens out for the finest recordings of Vaughan Williams’s A Sea Symphony
‘Much the finest piece of sea music that we, a seafaring folk above everything, possess’. The Manchester Guardian wrote that in 1910, when Vaughan Williams conducted the premiere of A Sea Symphony at the Leeds Festival, on his 38th birthday. The paper’s verdict arguably still holds true, although Britten’s Peter Grimes is an obvious rival. Fittingly, perhaps, the inspiration for A Sea Symphony came from across the broad Atlantic. The poetry of the American Walt Whitman was voguishly popular when Vaughan Williams was an undergraduate at Cambridge University. The composer, a ‘cheerful agnostic’, immediately fastened on the powerful pantheism of Whitman’s poetic vision, and the poet’s intense physical engagement with the world around him. The music that Whitman’s sea texts elicited has both thrilling viscerality and a strong philosophical undertow, in its climactic vision of the individual soul sailing forth ‘for the deep waters only, where mariner has not yet dared to go’.