The vast similitude

Whitman’s poetry (inclined to the metaphysical, big-boned, gung-ho, ‘go west young soul man’ sort of stuff)† arrives, in the slow movement of A Sea Symphony (On the Beach at Night, Alone), at the perception of a ‘vast similitude’ which  ‘compactly hold(s) and enclose(s)’ all things, past, present, and future.

Vaughan Williams’ music, though not exactly vast – it’s a goodish sized symphony, though, lasting about an hour – expresses this unity by means of a reiterated  figure based on the relative relationship between two chords;‡  it appears right at the opening of the first three movements and also in the closing bars of the finale.

Take, for instance, the beginning of the first movement:



Heather Harper (soprano); John Shirley-Quirk (baritone); London Symphony Chorus; with André Previn conducting the London Symphony Orchestra
BMG-RCA RED SEAL 82876-55708

…much of that feeling that an huge sea-vista has just, magically, opened out in front of us, is due to that juxtaposition of b-flat minor (opening brass fanfare and initial chord for the chorus) and D major (the word ‘sea’ for the chorus and entry of the full orchestra). If we examine the two triads we’ll see that the first literally does ‘open out’ into the second…

Opening chords 1st movement


…the B-flat dropping to A while the D-flat and F-natural rise to D-natural and F-sharp respectively. And the other movements? Well, …

Avast! intrepid explorers, dust down your sea boots and your sou’westers, we’re off on a long, mystical voyage –
O my brave soul!
O farther farther sail!
O daring joy, but safe! are they not all the seas of God?
O farther, farther, farther sail!
                                            Walt Whitman: Passage to India

† Remember last Wednesday? Toward the Unknown Region?
…then we burst forth, we float in time and space… them to fulfill O soul.

‡ For the technically minded the (frequently flattened) submediant and the tonic – b-flat and D (first movement); c and E (slow movement); B-flat and g (scherzo) and c and E-flat (finale).

Course materials:

VW biography

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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