The argument that Ralph Vaughan Williams was not by nature an operatic composer is refuted by his superlative setting of J. M. Synge's one-act play Riders to the Sea, which he began sketching in 1925 and completed by 1932. This concentrated stage work, only thirty-five minutes long, has been called the "English Pelléas," for its sensitivity to the rhythm of language (here the curiously lilting syntax of the West Irish, as written down by Synge) and its subtle motivic development, in which fragments of theme, too short to be called melodies, evolve and weave together into an impressionistic fabric not dissimilar to that of Debussy's opera. Published in 1936, Riders to the Sea was first performed publicly at the Royal College of Music in London on 1 December 1937.
John Millicent Synge (1871-1909) collected folk speech the way Vaughan Williams collected folk song. As the composer recounted in his long essay, "National Music," he had been alerted to the unusual phrasings of Celtic speakers while vacationing as a young man on the island of Skye. The syntactical intensity (and chant-like musicality) of a Gaelic preacher he heard there convinced him that his writing for the voice would be most effective if language was allowed to take its own shape. In Riders to the Sea, the poetic rhythms and images of Synge's Aran island fisher folk found their perfect complement in Vaughan Williams' supple, impressionistic music.
To tell the story of the old woman Maurya, who has lost all her men to the sea, Vaughan Williams wrote some of his most remarkable music: grim, spare, often dissonant, and almost entirely unrelieved in its forbidding quality. The cast is small: Maurya, her daughters Cathleen and Nora, her son Bartley who appears but briefly and returns at the end as a corpse brought in by three women, only one of whom is given a sung role. An offstage chorus of women's voices also assists. The orchestra is small too, with strings, one each of woodwinds, and modest percussion.
While there are minor echoes from his other works of the mid-1920s (Flos Campi and Sancta Civitas especially), much of the musical style is new, and would only occasionally be encountered in later works: the rising outburst accompanying the discovery that the bundle of clothing is indeed from Michael's corpse prefiguring the anguished outcry that opens the Symphony No. 6 in E minor, the sea-machine and the wordlessly keening women's voices anticipating the inhuman vocalizing of the Sinfonia Antarctica and the eerier passages of An Oxford Elegy). In this unsettled, wind-swept setting, triadic harmony appears strangest of all, and is used to truly frightening effect in the muted woodwind chords that accompany Maurya's revelation that she has seen the ghost of her son Michael.
In Synge's play, which Vaughan Williams set almost verbatim, the composer found his best libretto, with a real human being for its central character. As through unrelenting tragedy Maurya grows in strength and humanity, so Vaughan Williams' music evolves in intensity and emotion, mirroring the wrenching sorrow of the text. Curiously, Vaughan Williams chose to omit a significant detail from Synge's play: When Maurya goes to meet her departing son Bartley (at which encounter she will see the ghost of her most recently drowned son Michael), the stick she takes to prop her on her way across the rocks belonged to Michael. But Synge's ominous note is not missed in the opera, which provides more than enough musical foreshadowing of the impending tragedy.