You know the idea of a “message in a bottle” right? It’s a fun way to send hand-written notes and ideas to others over great distances and often over great periods of time. Part of the fun is the mystery of where the message will end up, who will find the bottle, and how the message will be received.
In a very great way, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony is a message in a kind of musical bottle.
With text by American poet Walt Whitman, this masterwork of choral literature (written between 1903-05) is, on its surface, all about sea ships, oceans, and travelers. But buried just beneath the waves is one of the great messages of all-time: “We are all the same!”
The text by Walt Whitman is taken from his work “Leaves of Grass.” Many scholars agree Whitman is the forefather of contemporary American poetry, a poetry that often relies on things rather than ideas, on a conversational narrative rather than formal rhyming patterns. Whitman is also credited with bringing American writing out of the age of romanticism into the age of realism.
Whitman’s poetry about a sea voyage is a metaphor for man’s odyssey through the cosmos. The text explains we are all passengers on a great vessel, the earth, and our shared experiences are so important to that voyage. We see the same moon and stars (every one who exists now, or has existed, or may exist sees exactly the same night sky). We all are rocked by the same rolling of the waves on the ocean, pulled to and by the forces of gravity. We sail together on one vessel under one flag above all the rest, “a pennant universal.” With great skill, Vaughan Williams paints a soundscape of waves, of liquid uneven, of whirling current–you will literally feel the ebb and flow of the ocean throughout much of the work.
The music will take you through every emotion a symphony orchestra can summon. The brass fanfare that opens the first movement sets the stage for a majestic, expansive experience. However, Vaughan Williams also composes passages that are gentle and lilting, moments of thrilling string runs, gentle melodies, percussive passages and expansive anthems. The piece is in four movements that also feature soprano and baritone soloists. The choir and orchestra have equal weight throughout the entire work choir and together creating a diverse yet single sound.
But the last movement is truly as good as it gets in the entire body of choral symphonies, with a message for all time: the vessel that you and I and all of humanity have in-common is a universal relationship with the creator and with creation, with body and soul and the divine all together. One God, everywhere.
We invite you to steer for the deep waters with us in this amazing work, in the unity of both symphony and chorus and soloists. It’s a journey you can’t miss!
Join Wisconsin Poet Laureate Karla Huston and newVoices singer Mark Scheffler will present a discussion of the piece in a pre-concert discussion at 6:30 on May 6 in the Kimberly Clark Theater at the Fox Cities PAC. For tickets visit this link.