Vaughan Williams: A Sea Symphony

February 27, 1983, 07:30 PM
Keith Clark, Conductor
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
TITLE COMPOSER/ ARRANGER GUEST ARTISTS
Star-Child George Crumb
Irene Gubrud , Soprano
A Sea Symphony Ralph Vaughan Williams
Irene Gubrud , Soprano
Alan Opie , Baritone

PROGRAM NOTES

STAR-CHILD
(A Parable for Soprano, Antiphonal Treble Voices, Men's Speaking Chorus, and Large Orchestra)
George Crumb
(b. October 24, 1929, Charleston, West Virginia)
The following program note was commissioned with funds generously provided by The Macmillan Foundation, and reprinted here with the permission of The New York Philharmonic Orchestra.
 
George Crumb began to compose at about age 12 and his first musical studies were with his father, a bandmaster and clarinetist. In 1950 he graduated from Mason College in Charleston, West Virginia, with a Bachelor's degree in music; two years later he received a Master's degree from the University of Illinois. Crumb's Doctorate was earned at the University of Michigan, where he studied composition with Ross Lee Finney. He al so worked with Boris Blacher at Tanglewood and at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik. From 1959 to 1964 he taught at the University of Colorado. He is presently professor of composition at the University of Pennsylvania.
 
Crumb has been the recipient of numerous grants and awards, among them Fulbright, Guggenheim and Rockefeller grants, a National Institute of Arts and Letters award, and the 1968 Pulitzer Prize (for Echoes of Time and the River, Four Processionals for Orchestra (1967). Among his compositions are Variations for Orchestra (1959); Night Music I for soprano, piano, celesta and percussion (1963); Night Music II for violin and piano (1964); Eleven Echoes of Autumn, 1965 for chamber ensemble; Black Angels for electric string quartet (1970); Ancient Voices of Children (Song cycle - 1970); and Makrokosmos I, II and III for piano, for amplified piano and for piano and percussion (1972, 1973, 1974). Virgil Thomson has cited Crumb's music for being "highly imaginative as timbre and ultraromantic in its fluidity [with] an unquestioned brilliance of instrumentation."
 
Star-Child, completed in March 1977, was commissioned by the Ford Foundation and written for Irene Gubrud, soprano, and Pierre Boulez and the New York Philharmonic. The score bears a dedication to Crumb's two sons, David and Peter.
 
Four conductors are required, two primary and two secondary. Conductor I conducts all of the vocal passages and also all of the winds and six of the percussionists until the concluding portion of the work. Conductor II conducts all of the strings and two of the percussionists throughout. Toward the end the winds divide into smaller groupings, and at this point Conductor III directs the brass instruments and three percussionists while Conductor IV leads the clarinets, flutes and vibraphone. Each conductor sets a different tempo so that the effect is that of several superimposed musics. - Phillip Ramey
 
The following commentary is by the composer:
 
As most of my writing has been concentrated in the chamber dimension, Star-Child is my largest piece as far as instrumentation. It uses Latin texts which I feel have meanings that transcend doctrinal interpretation. On the contrary, they convey universal meaning. It seems to me that when a Latin text is involved, a large, monolithic quality is suggested, and this fact accounts for the increased orchestra. Also, I was interested in constructing a work with different kinds of textures and timbres. The only place where there are sustained tutti effects is in the Apocalyptica section (this also has the only really fast music in the score and involves the only sustained fortissimo playing).
 
The title was suggested by another of my works, Music for a Summer Evening (Makrokosmos III), in which there is a section called "Hymn for the Advent of the StarChild." In addition, there are certain pertinent references in Star-Child's Latin texts: to "children of light" in the Biblical quote "Hymn for the New Age" and references to finding the light in a world of darkness in “Advent of the Children of Light". Binding the work together is a sense of progression from darkness (or despair) to light (or joy and spiritual realization) as expressed by both music and text - a conception that is at the same time medieval and romantic. For instance, the idea of dark and light is reflected in the instrumentation, for the earlier sections of Star-Child favor the darker instruments (the lower brass, bassoons, contrabassoon), while near the end the effect is quite different with the treble voices and hand bells. However there is no particular philosophical basis to Star-Child. It is simply a work within the tradition of music having a finale which expresses the hope that, after a struggle or after dark implications, there is something beyond.
 
Star-Child is continuous, despite sectional divisions. The germinal idea, "Music of the Spheres" (strings, pianissimo), moves throughout the work in a circular and therefore static manner, a kind of background music over which the human drama is played. This idea consists of two stacks of string chords built upon the open fifth. Slow moving strains of music without much rhythmic variety, they move basically in half-notes and quarter- notes. This is a rather Ivesian gesture: in a sense everything else is a superimposition since it occurs over the strings' "Spheres" music. The different musics are conducted separately, by four conductors, so vertical coincidence is erased - there is no exact vertical alignment. Metrics vary a great deal and tend to be odd-numbered : the opening string music is in 11/4 time, the entire Apocalyptica in 5/16, and there are other sections based on sevens and threes.
 
Star-Child contains certain programmatic or pictorial allusions. The seven trumpets of the apocalypse are represented, quite literally, by seven trumpets - two in the orchestra and five positioned around the auditorium. This extended passage of trumpet cadenzas climaxes with a heroic high F on the fateful seventh trumpet. Also, the four horsemen of the apocalypse are represented, not quite so literally, by four drummers playing sixteen tom-toms. "Dies lrae" is quoted at several points in a rather surreal whole-tone transformation: the first phrase of it is extensively used in the Apocalyptica, while its three phrases comprise the soft brass music that accompanies the treble voices at the end. "Voice Crying in the Wilderness," with a text on extracts from the "Dies lrae," is a long duet for solo soprano and solo trombonist (the trombone is in front of the orchestra, to one side of the stage, for this section). The “Voice" is therefore a composite voice, with the trombone functioning as a kind of doppelganger.
 
Eight percussionists play a very wide range of instruments. Some of the more characteristic are: iron chains, flexi-tones, pot lids (struck with metal beaters), sizzle cymbals, metal thunder sheet, log drums. Some of the more usual instruments are required in pairs, e.g. vibraphones, timpani, bass drums, tubular bells. There is also a wind machine. Since the percussion is arranged in a circular fashion around the orchestra many antiphonal effects are possible.
 
A SEA SYMPHONY
Ralph Vaughan Williams
(b. October 12, 1872, Down Ampney, Gloucestshire; d. August 26, 1958, London.)
 
Significant musical and biographical influences bear on the production of Ralph Vaughan Williams' (1872-1958) A Sea Symphony. This vast choral symphony definitively marked his emergence and recognition as a mature composer. Its gestation evolved gradually between 1903 and 1909, but more immediately from 1906 onward. Vaughan Williams conducted this his first symphony on his thirty-eighth birthday, October 12, 1910, at the Leeds Festival.
 
That A Sea Symphony should embrace four choral movements testifies to Vaughan Williams' enduring search for and lifelong efforts to establish an English music as a distinctive and typical national expression of the art. His vital interest and work in discovering and preserving English folk music occupied him in his earlier years. It led him further to investigate the more sophisticated Elizabethan and Jacobean choral music. His research likewise put him in contact with the choral art of Henry Purcell which exercised its influence on him and this symphony. From 1905 onward he personally undertook the promotion and conducting of performances of English and European choral works at the Leith Hill (Dorking) Music Festival founded by his sister Margaret and Lady Farrer. Similarly between 1905 and 1906 his undertaking of the musical editorship of The English Hymnal exposed him to a treasury of some of the finest hymns in the world. Sine Nomine (For All the Saints), one of four contributions he made to this esteemed hymnal, witnesses to his early ability and is justly celebrated as one of its grandest and noblest melodies. Involvement in song and choral music thus figured prominently in his early endeavors.
 
By dogged determination to become an acknowledged composer, Vaughan Williams had to overcome discouraging obstacles. At Cambridge University he studied under Charles Wood who believed he would never make a composer. During those undergraduate days general opinion circulating about the University as reported by his cousin Gwen Raverat indicated that he was considered hopelessly bad at composition. He received a thoroughly traditional grounding, however, at the Royal College of Music from Sir Charles Stanford and Sir Hubert Parry, the leading British composers of the time, and in Berlin from Max Bruch. This disciplined education was salted with a good dash of Parry's intellectual and artistic independence and his interest in fostering in his students their characteristic individuality. From this enlivening influence Vaughan Williams received and always subsequently affirmed his conviction that true art resided not in rigid adherence to handed down theoretical principles, but rather to artistic sincerity and integrity. He also mastered under Parry's tutelage, as his biographer Frank Hawes observed, the art of "marshalling choral masses in exuberant contrapuntal climaxes." Parry had earlier demonstrated his own mastery in At A Solemn Music (Blest Pair of Sirens), a setting of Milton's poem which Vaughan Williams esteemed as the greatest choral work in English music. Parry was to say of A Sea Symphony that it was "big stuff with some impertinences."
 
Since Ralph's father, the Reverend Arthur Vaughan Williams died in 1875, the son never appears to have been a convinced Christian believer. While at Cambridge he professed to be an atheist. Later, as his second wife Ursula asserted: "though he drifted into a cheerful agnosticism, he was never a professing Christian."
 
In these circumstances his imagination was fired by his fellow undergraduate at Cambridge, Bertrand Russell, who introduced him to the "lofty, humanitarian, pantheistic, and sometimes wolly sentiments of Walt Whitman's poetry," as another biographer, Michael Kennedy observed in 1968. Whitman's poetry afforded a suitably attractive alternative to biblical texts for a generation strongly influenced by Darwinian thought and seeking solutions to the riddles of human existence.
 
As early as 1903 Vaughan Williams came to appreciate the advantages afforded a musician in setting Whitman's robust and often a-metrical verse. He excerpted from the American's Whispers of Heavenly Death the poem "Dares! Thou Now, O Soul" for his first major choral/orchestral success at the Leeds Festival in 1907 where he premiered his Toward the Unknown Region.
 
This expansive work served as a brief exploratory musical essay for those ideas which he would greatly expand in A Sea Symphony. Both works deal with the intrepidity of Man who embarks out into the Unknown to seek, to suffer, to succeed and in success to conquer. In the earlier musical essay the Soul venturing into the Unknown frees itself from earthbound trammels to fulfill itself.
 
In A Sea Symphony Vaughan Williams, under the imagery of the boundless sea and the ships sailing upon it in their many varying moods: calm, peaceful, placid, tossed, stormy, destructive, death-dealing, portrays the voyage of the human soul toward the same unknown reality, probing the secret of a pantheistic Universe:
 
We too take ship, O Soul.
joyous we too launch out on the trackless sea
Fearless, for unknown shores on waves of
ecstasy to sail
Amid the wafting winds
Caroling free, singing our song of God.
 
Vaughan Williams selected for the first three movements of A Sea Symphony three poems from the sub-section entitled Sea Drift of Whitman's Leaves of Grass. The Symphony's first two movements bear the same title as the poems selected: "A Song for All Seas, All Men" and "On the Beach at Night Alone." The third movement called in the symphony "The Waves" is Whitman's poem in the same series entitled "After the Sea Ship." For the fourth and longest movement entitled "The Explorers" - the movement generally regarded as exhibiting the Symphony's best music - he selected and unified widely scattered excerpts from another lengthy sub-section of Leaves of Grass entitled "Passage to India."
 
In all four movements Vaughan Williams displayed a strong compositional sense of what verses or lines to utilize or omit. Where Whitman rambled particularly in the "Passage to India" he tightened up the poetry to serve his vision of the quest for the Unbounded. He thus conveys clearly and succinctly from the first brass fanfare proclaiming the words "Behold the Sea itself" to the mystical choral invocation to the "vast rondure swimming in space" his rhetorically unified musical conception with power, grandeur, awe and meditative reflection.
 
- Richard H. Trame, S.J., Ph.D.,
Loyola Marymount University

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