Behold, the sea itself

Heather Harper (soprano); John Shirley-Quirk (baritone); London Symphony Chorus; with André Previn conducting the London Symphony Orchestra
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The grandeur and vision of the opening of Vaughan Williams’ first symphony – you can listen to it on the player above – augured well for the 36 year old composer’s career as a symphonist, (although it must be said that A Sea Symphony (1910), as the first symphony is entitled, only conformed in the broadest of senses to the ‘symphonic ideal’ .)

There followed eight other works, works which spanned the composer’s life: A London Symphony (1914); the Pastoral Symphony (1922); the untitled 4th (1935), 5th (1943) and 6th (1948); the Sinfonia Antartica (1953); and, finally, the 8th (1956) and 9th (1958).

So, from what tradition do these symphonies grow? What are their antecedents?

Victorian England has been described as ‘The land without music’ (in its original language, Das Land ohne Musik)the label is, it seems, a bit of German pre-First World War mud-slinging that appears (maybe because there was a grain of truth in it) to have stuck; but, German propaganda notwithstanding, there was music, and there were symphonies…


A Sea Symphony is a setting of the poetry of Walt Whitman. Click below to see the full text:
A Sea Symphony text

…and, if you want to listen to the whole symphony…

André Previn;Heather Harper;John Shirley-Quirk – Symphony No. 1, “A Sea Symphony”: A Song for All Seas, All Ships (Andante maestoso)
Spotify search terms: “sea symphony” previn]


There are two other events I’m involved in, in which you may be interested, that take place in the earlier part of 2013. The first is a WEA course on the fascinating subject of what composers do to, and with other people’s music; it’s entitled Borrowing (for more information click on the link below):
and the second is a series of free pre-concert talks (sponsored by the Friends of the Swansea Festival of Music and the Arts) which will take place in the Kent Room just before each of the concerts in BBC National Orchestra of Wales’ Swansea concert series (again, more information on the link below):
BBC NoW preconcert talks

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