Below are some notes on each piece of our programme to be performed on Satruday 9th June at St Albans Cathedral and at which we are pleased to be joined by soloists Sarah Fox (soprano), Robert Gildon (baritone), Sue Graham Smith (piano), Marnus Greyling (organ), and with the Chameleon Arts Orchestra. To listen to examples of performances of each piece, please click on the various links, each of which has a visual element which may add a dimension to your listening.
The sea is a mighty power. Sometimes it is gentle, unruffled, as calm as a millpond. At other times, we see the huge power of the mass of water. Therefore, it is no surprise that the sea has been an inspiration to writers, artists and musicians who have tried to capture both the character of the sea and the character of those whose business involves the sea – those who ‘occupy their business in deep waters’ (Psalm 107).
The programme begins with the result of Mendelssohn’s trip to the Hebridean islands of Iona and Staffa where he watched the relentless Atlantic Ocean waves pounding into the shoreline and could appreciate the grandeur of Fingal's Cave. In August 1829 (at age 20) he wrote to his sister, ‘In order to make you understand how extraordinarily the Hebrides affected me, the following came into my mind there’, and he quoted the opening theme of the Overture. That short, restless figure with which the Overture begins runs through the entire composition and evokes the ceaseless battering of the waves upon the seashore. The music describes the rolling sea; it concludes with a dramatic coda that just suddenly ebbs away rather like a wave going out to sea. The final version of the Overture was first performed in London in 1832.
We then leave the sea for the beautiful Eclogue for piano solo and strings by the English composer Gerald Finzi (1901-56). The title was ascribed posthumously to the work which is believed to be an unfinished piano concerto. The term Eclogue is used to describe a poem on a pastoral subject. A number of other composers have used the title ‘Eclogue’ including Dvorak, Sibelius and Stravinsky.
In Herbert Sumsion’s setting of part of Psalm 107, we hear clearly how ‘these men see … the wonders … of the Lord’, how ‘the stormy sea ariseth … and they are carried up to heaven and down again to the deep’. This is an anthem in the spirit of the great English cathedral tradition. Sumsion was himself the organist of Gloucester Cathedral (1928-1967). However, this was written for the choir of Repton Preparatory School. One can imagine the enjoyment of the composer in writing such colourful and dramatic music; a little musical idea for almost every phrase in the text. Surely the boys must have enjoyed singing it too – as have choirs ever since enjoyed ‘reeling to and fro’?!
In 1910, A Sea Symphony (in four movements) was first performed at the Leeds Festival. Two years earlier, Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) had returned from studying with Maurice Ravel in Paris. However, he had been working on this symphony since 1903. It is a high point of the English choral tradition showing, for example, the composer’s admiration for Hubert Parry. Significantly, the choir is used as an integral part of the musical texture together with the large orchestra and the mighty organ. In that and other ways, it marks a new approach to the symphonic form. It was not the first time that the composer had set the poetry of Walt Whitman which, while some might find ponderous or even portentous, clearly inspired the composer. The text of A Sea Symphony comes from Whitman's Leaves of Grass.
The music is very descriptive not only of the sea (with the tempo of the music often pushing forward and easing back like the waves on the seashore) but of an expansive voyage of broad and leisurely reflections on man, nature and the restless spirit typified by the mariner.
- A Song for all Seas, all Ships: Andante maestoso - The beginning, one of the most impressive of any choral work, is like the opening of a mighty door – ‘BEHOLD, THE SEA itself …’ followed by a wash of sea sound to the words ‘and on its limitless heaving breast, the ships’. Later for ‘Today a rude brief recitative’, the baritone sings to almost sea-shanty rhythms; and, further on, the soprano sings of the ‘various flags and ship signals’.
- On the Beach at Night, Alone: Largo sostenuto - The slow movement opens sombrely as the soloist reflects on the ‘thought of the clef of the Universes’. The ‘vast similitude spans them’ is reflected in declamatory music. The movement concludes darkly referring back to the opening music.
- Scherzo: The Waves: Allegro brillante – There is plenty of wind and spray in this fast-moving music though also with time for a magnificent striding theme with a hint of the naval band in the background.
- The Explorers: Grave e molto adagio – The music of this, the longest, movement touches many aspects from the hushed ‘O vast rondure swimming in space’ to the majestic final chorus ‘Sail forth - steer for the deep waters only.’ Along the way, a semi-chorus asks perhaps the works central question: ‘Wherefore unsatisfied soul? Whither O mocking life?’ At the end, the music eventually dies away in the depths of the orchestra.