Classical Connections: And all I ask is a tall ship…

Walt Whitman in September 1872.
Walt Whitman in September 1872.

Do you ever get that curious experience when for no apparent reason, a line of poetry, or a long-forgotten name or phrase drifts into your mind and catches you unawares?  This morning I was making some dog food in the kitchen, when John Masefield’s evocative line floated into my mind. And yes, since you asked, the food was intended for the dogs not for me, although I have occasionally tried those Pedigree Chum dog chews. They look a lot better than they taste, I can tell you. But of course, these things are rather subjective and you might be very fond of them.

Anyway, last week I was looking at some of those stunning seascapes by Ivan Aivazovsky, the nineteenth century Russian painter who’s regarded as one of the greatest marine artists in history. He created literally thousands of seascapes and had the uncanny ability to convey the effect of moving water and of reflected sun and moonlight. If these things interest you, there are several websites where you can see his remarkable and technically brilliant work. It’s not surprising that the sea has had such a profound influence literature and the arts. Two of Masefield’s best-known poems are about the sea and the second line of Sea Fever with its yearning for a tall ship was quoted by Captain James T. Kirk in a rare moment of reflection during a 1980s episode of the television series Star Trek.

In Britain, you can’t go very far without arriving at the coastline and the sea has influenced many other British writers and composers. Benjamin Britten, born in a fishing port in Suffolk, found inspiration in the sea and so did Arnold Bax and Edward Elgar whose Sea Pictures are still a great favourite in Britain. In 1905, the conductor Henry Wood (he of Proms fame) composed his Fantasia on British Sea Songs, celebrating the centenary of the Battle of Trafalgar of 1805.

So then, here are two sea-inspired works by English composers of the early twentieth century. Both are scored for large orchestra, chorus and soloists and both are settings of poems by the America’s “first poet of democracy” Walt Whitman.

Frederick Delius (1862-1934): Sea Drift. Bryn Terfel (bass-baritone), BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra cond. Sir Mark Elder (Duration: c. 25:00; Video: 720p HD)

Frederick Delius was born to German parents in the north of England and by all accounts he retained a noticeable Yorkshire accent throughout his life. His atmospheric work Sea Drift takes its name from one of Whitman’s poems in the Leaves of Grass collection. It’s a large-scale work written in France where Delius lived for most of his adult years. Sea Drift was composed between 1903 and 1904 and was first performed in Germany a couple of years later.

The first performance in England was conducted by Henry Wood in 1908 at the Sheffield Festival. It was later performed in Manchester though it was reported that there were more people on the stage than there were in the audience. Even so, this is an impressive work. The performance on this video was recorded by the BBC at the first night of The Proms in 2012 and the audio quality and video production are exemplary. It also has the added advantage of subtitles so that you can fully appreciate the depth of meaning in Whitman’s engaging but profoundly sad poem.

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958): A Sea Symphony. Soloists and Choir; Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra, cond. Dennis Russell Davies (Duration: 1:12:31; Video: 1080p HD)

The music of Ralph Vaughan Williams is so established in his home country that British musicians often refer to him simply as “RVW” but his name can be tricky for foreigners. His surname is “Vaughan Williams” not just “Williams” and his first name is pronounced “Rafe” to rhyme with “safe”. During his long and prolific life he wrote nine magnificent symphonies for which he is best-known, a great deal of choral works and music for stage and screen. Strangely enough, Vaughan Williams did not number his first three symphonies although the Sea Symphony was the first, composed between 1903 and 1909. It’s also his longest.

Whitman’s poems were not widely known in Britain at the time but Vaughan Williams was attracted to them not only for their thematic content but also for their use of free verse. The symphony uses five of Whitman’s lesser-known poems from Leaves of Grass. The first three movements are entitled A Song for All Seas, All Ships; On the Beach at Night, Alone and The Waves. The last movement (The Explorers) uses text from Passage to India. The Sea Symphony contains some thrilling moments and some remarkably beautiful music. Towards the end of the work (01:07:17) there’s a sublime duet for the soprano and baritone soloists and the symphony ends almost inaudibly in a mood of profound serenity.