Ralph Vaughan Williams

Symphony No. 1 for soprano, baritone, chorus & orchestra ("A Sea Symphony")

    Description by Mark Satola

    The poetry of Walt Whitman was a rallying point for Vaughan Williams and his fellow students at Cambridge in the 1890's; for the composer, Whitman remained a lifelong source of inspiration. His largest Whitman setting is A Sea Symphony, which Vaughan Williams began writing in 1903, when he was 31 years old, and which he completed, only after much revision in 1909. Whitman's decidedly non-ecclesiastical vision of the soul's journey through life as a sea voyage into uncharted regions certainly appealed to Vaughan Williams, a declared agnostic who once exclaimed "Who believes in God nowadays, I should like to know?" according to fellow Trinity scholar Betrand Russell. Drawing inspiration from the cantatas of Parry and the operettas of Sullivan, as well as the English folk songs he had recently begun to collect, Vaughan Williams fashioned a huge score that contains some of the finest choral writing of its era. In the first movement, "A Song for All Seas, All Ships," a stern brass flourish is answered by full chorus, "Behold the sea itself." Thematic motives that will inform the rest of the work are immediately sounded: the words "and on its limitless, heaving breast, the ships" are set to a noble, arching theme that appeared more than once in Vaughan Williams' music, from the early unpublished tone-poem The Solent to the Symphony No. 9 of 1958. A quicker, shanty-like section ensues, making use of the folk song "Tarry Trowsers," in which the baritone soloist sings "a rude, brief recitative of ships sailing the seas." The dramatic entry of the soprano is heralded by the opening brass flourish; her cavatina extends the imagery into the spiritual: "...for the soul of man one flag above all the rest...emblem of man elate above death [.]" The second movement is a nocturne, "On the Beach at Night, Alone," for baritone and chorus, in which, to a dark, rocking accompaniment the soloist muses on "the clef of the universes" and, over a soft march-like tread in the bass (the legacy of Parry), envisions how "A vast similitude interlocks all." The chorus unleashes a forthright and powerful declamation after which the initial mystery of the opening returns, this time with orchestra alone. A sprightly version of the opening fanfare, with pizzicato strings, launches the scherzo "The Waves" for chorus alone. The quick and lightly scored counterpoint in the orchestral accompaniment underscores the interplay of "whistling winds...undulating waves...that whirling current" through which a ship plies its way. The trio is a broad, Parryesque melody to the words "Where the great vessel sailing and tacking displaced the surface." The movement concludes with alternating fanfares for both brass and chorus. "The Explorers" is fully half an hour in length, a finale containing some of Vaughan Williams' most noble music. Here the metaphor of the soul as a ship voyaging through the seas of life is most forthrightly expressed. A quiet introduction for hushed chorus ("O vast Rondure, swimming in space") is followed by a slow march describing the "restless" soul of man from its origins in Adam and Eve, climaxing in a vision of the poet, "the true son of God" who will guide mankind through his songs. The soprano and baritone soloists sing of the Soul "taking ship" to "launch out on trackless seas" in a duet of operatic fervor. A faster section ("Away O Soul!") launches the Soul's journey, with a final note of benediction ("O daring joy, but safe! are they not all the seas of God?") before the symphony sinks from sight in the lowest strings.


    1. A Song for All Seas, All Ships
    2. On the beach at night alone
    3. Scherzo (The Waves)
    4. The Explorers

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2018 Hyperion CDA 68245
    2018 Onyx Classics ONYX 4185
    2016 RCA Red Seal 88875126952
    2015 Hallé CDHLL 7542
    2014 Melodiya MELCD 1002170
    2011 EMI Classics
    2010 Warner Classics
    2009 EMI Classics
    2008 MDR Records VKJK 0731
    2008 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099920663
    2008 Naxos 8506020
    2007 Chandos 5047
    2005 EMI Music Distribution 575308
    2005 EMI Classics
    2005 Naxos 6110016
    2004 Naxos 5110016
    2004 Decca 000213202
    2004 EMI Music Distribution / Warner Classics 7243586026
    2004 RCA Red Seal 55708
    2003 Naxos 8557059
    2003 Classica d'Oro 1070
    2003 EMI Music Distribution 575760
    2002 Telarc Distribution 60588
    2002 Telarc Distribution 80588
    2000 Teldec 84070
    2000 EMI Classics / EMI Music Distribution 73924
    1997 BELART 461442
    1997 Teldec 17047
    1995 Teldec 94550
    1995 EMI Music Distribution 2142
    1994 Karussell 450144
    1994 EMI Music Distribution 65458
    1993 RCA Victor Red Seal 61197
    1992 Chandos 8764
    1992 Chandos 9087-91
    1990 EMI Music Distribution 49911
    1990 RCA 60580
    1988 EMI Music Distribution 69867
    Virgin 90843
    Rca Red Seal 6237
    EMI Music Distribution 47212
    EMI Classics 968934
    Carlton 569150
    Newport Classic 60134
    EMI Music Distribution 1
    RCA Victor Red Seal 61460