Vaughan Williams wrote the cantata (his designation) in 1936, the year after the choral suite Five Tudor Portraits and two years before the exquisite Serenade to Music. It premiered on 2 October of that year, in Huddersfield, as part of the celebration of the Huddersfield Choral Society’s centennial. The performing forces are soprano and baritone soloists, SATB chorus (parts sometimes divided), and full orchestra including organ. It’s a substantial piece in six movements that flow without pause from one to the next; the Oxford University Press vocal score gives “about 40 minutes” as the time of performance (works like this confirm that audiences do not have the attention span of gnats, as some claim). The work is ahead of its time in using both Latin and English and in mixing sacred and secular texts; Britten of course was to adopt a similar procedure for the War Requiem.
Prior to his death Vaughan Williams asked that his second wife (his first died in 1951) write his biography and that Michael Kennedy write about his works; these two books remain standard reference works today (Ursula Vaughan Williams, [Oxford University Press, 1964]; Michael Kennedy, , 2nd ed. [Oxford University Press, 1980]). Michael Kennedy has also compiled (2nd ed., Oxford University Press, 1996), and the musicologically inclined may wish to consult Neil Butterworth, (Garland, 1990); Alain Frogley, ed., (Cambridge University Press, 1996); Byron Adams and Robin Wells, eds., Vaughan Williams Essays (2003); and Alain Frogley and Aidan J Thomson, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Vaughan Williams (2013). Two iconographies exist; see John E. Lunn and Ursula Vaughan Williams, (Oxford University Press, 1971) and Jerrold Northrop Moore, (Oxford University Press, 1992). Vaughan Williams’s own writings may be found, among other places, in (Clarendon, 1996) as well as (Cornell University Press, 1955), a series of lectures given at Cornell and Yale in 1954. To date there exists no book on his choral music, a major considering how important he is as a choral writer.
The four movements of the Sea Symphony conform outwardly to those of a standard symphony: large scale first and last movements, with an interior slow movement and tri-partite scherzo. The weight of the piece, as was normal by this time, is in the final movement, which is considerably longer than any of the other three. But neither the first nor last movement is clearly in sonata form (expected for first movements, and common for last movements); they are perhaps more accurately described as “episodic.” Nor does Vaughan Williams observe the standard practice in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century symphonies of ending either where one began tonally (e.g., a symphony in D Major would begin and end in that key) or in a closely related key (e.g., a symphony in D Minor could end up in D Major). Instead, Vaughan Williams practices the “progressive tonality” we can observe as well in the symphonies of his contemporary Mahler, moving from D Major (Mvt. 1) to E Minor (Mvt. 2) to G Minor/G Major (Mvt. 3) to Eb Major (Mvt. 4).
Vaughan Williams was born on 12 October 1872 at Down Ampney in Gloucestershire, a son of the Revd. Arthur Vaughan Williams and his wife Margaret (Wedgwood). He attended Charterhouse School and studied at the Royal College of Music under Hubert Parry and Walter Parratt. After university he was a pupil of Charles Stanford. In 1897 he married Adeline Fisher. He became the leading British composer of his generation, writing songs, instrumental works, choral works and symphonies. During the 1914-18 war he joined the Royal Army Medical Corps as an ambulance orderly and later served at the Somme. Declining a knighthood he was made a member of the Order of Merit. In 1953 he married his second wife Ursula Wood (1911-2007).
The work was a first in many respects. For Vaughan Williams it was his first symphony; it was his longest work to date; and it was the longest British symphony up to that time as well. But it represents the logical outgrowth of earlier work as well. The New Grove lists six orchestral works composed before the Sea Symphony was begun, as well as four choral works, numerous songs, and two choral/orchestral compositions (a youthful mass—not the famous one in G Minor from the 1920s—and The Garden of Prosperine to a text by Swinburne). During the long gestation of the Sea Symphony Vaughan Williams continued to hone his craft through an additional series of one-movement orchestral works, including the lovely In the Fen Country and his three Norfolk Rhapsodies—the third now lost and the second unpublished, but the first alive, well, and quite attractive. And of course Toward the Unknown Region was completed during the genesis of the Sea Symphony.
The contributors also employ a range of analytical and historical methods of investigation to illuminate aspects of Vaughan Williams' compositional techniques and influences, musical, literary and visual.
The wide-ranging and detailed collection of essays covers the spectrum of genres in which Vaughan Williams wrote, including dance, symphony, opera, song, hymnody and film music.
And of course Vaughan Williams himself continued to compose, though not without many frustrations. When we look back at well-known nineteenth-century English composers we see Sir Arthur Sullivan (1842–1900, of Gilbert & Sullivan fame), Sir Edward Elgar (1857–1934), and Frederick Delius (1862–1934), but none of these presented a path for Vaughan Williams to follow (Elgar declined his request to take him on as a pupil). It was up to Vaughan Williams to find his own way, and this he eventually did. One compositional sounding board was his close friend Gustav Holst, whom he had met at the RCM in 1895. Another help was Ravel, with whom he studied for three months in 1908. But undoubtedly the most important impetus was his discovery of English folk song, intensified by his firsthand experience in collecting this material.
The grew out of Vaughan Williams’s collecting efforts. He published his arrangement of the tune he had gathered as the last in a collection of folk song settings, the of 1913. The other songs are , and . Although Vaughan Williams was to turn to folk song for inspiration through much of his life, the five arrangements here are often considered his best; certainly they are the most elaborate, with the material treated freely throughout.
The volume contains the work of 11 North American scholars who have been recipients of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Fellowship based at the composer's own school, Charterhouse, which was created and has been supported by the Carthusian Trust since 1985.
But back to the matter at hand. For his setting Vaughan Williams selected six of the eight verses known, leaving out most of the references to specific barnyard animals (the “ox” Vaughan Williams refers to is first a horse, Dobbin, and then two cows, Broad May and Colly, in the original). For “our bread it is white” it is worth remembering that at the time the song was created, white bread was not associated with negative nutritional value, blandness, and unappealing texture, but was rather a delicacy enjoyed by the well-to-do (see —the book—where the only reason Valjean will eat white bread is that otherwise his beloved Cosette will insist upon eating black to be like him).
Vaughan Williams begins the arrangement with a haunting introduction. Although the tune itself opens with a rising fourth (E–A), Vaughan Williams commences with a series of risings fifths and then fourths (A–E at first and only then E–A), generating the hollow, ancient sound of harmony without thirds. He creates rhythmic tension by first following the proper stress emphasis of the word “Wassail,” presenting it as expected on the upbeat, and then going against this by placing it on the downbeat—throwing choruses off in rehearsal though ideally not in performance. Only after all voices have entered do the tenors bring forth the tune itself, eventually handed about to other parts as well. Throughout the work dynamics are of special importance, for if properly followed (another choral challenge) the impression Vaughan Williams creates is that of singers approaching from afar, eventually singing full force when they are nearest to the listener, and then fading away as they head off into the distance, ending with the altos alone on a ppp rising fifth.