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Program Notes - A Sea Symphony

Suite from Water Music
George Frideric Handel
b. Halle, Germany / February 23, 1685
d. London, England / April 14, 1759

First performed by the RPO on January 31, 1935; Sir Hamilton Harty, conductor. Christopoher Seaman's edition first performed on March 18, 1999.

The history of this utterly delightful music – the result of one of those heavenly occasions when a first-rate artist brings all his skills to bear strictly upon providing entertainment – is clouded with uncertainty and legend. Its precise origin may never be known, but such matters pale in comparison with the sheer joy that hearing it brings.

Here is one familiar version: Handel secured the prestigious post of Music Director to the court of Georg, Elector of Hanover, Germany, in 1710. Winning huge successes in England around the same time, however, led him to turn his back on his obligations and relocate to London instead. The death of England’s Queen Anne in 1714 threw a wrench into his not-altogether-admirable plans. Through a tangled web of trans channel relationships, her successor proved to be none other than the employer Handel had abandoned in Germany. Handel came to fear that Elector Georg – now King George I – might justifiably hold a grudge against his wandering, unreliable Maestro. He took care to avoid contact with the King for as long as possible.

According to John Mainwaring, Handel’s first biographer, an appropriately international pair of the King’s courtiers, Englishman Lord Burlington and Baron Kilmansegge of Germany (who had been Handel’s protector in Hanover), devised a scheme to reconcile composer and monarch. They persuaded the King to stage an elaborate boating party on the river Thames, to take place on the evening of August 22, 1715.

“Handel was apprised of the design, and advised to prepare some music for the occasion,” Mainwaring wrote. “It was performed and conducted by himself, unknown to His Majesty, whose pleasure on hearing it was equal to his surprise. He was impatient to know whose it was. The Baron then produced the delinquent, and asked leave to present him to His Majesty as one who was too conscious of his fault to attempt an excuse for it. This intercession was accepted without difficulty. Handel was restored to favor.”  

Other accounts mention this excursion but do not name Handel as the composer of the music. Similar royal festivities were held over the next two summers. It’s possible that Handel spread the creation of the three enchanting suites for small orchestra known as “Handel’s Celebrated Water Music” among those occasions or even, as related in another well-known and possibly more reliable account, composed them all for a particular royal excursion that took place on July 17, 1717. This version casts doubt on Handel’s ever being out of favor with the King.

The Water Music collection is quite varied in character, from a rather formal and substantial Overture to numerous sprightly dances and sweet, relaxed airs. Handel everywhere demonstrates a keen ear for instrumental color. Together, these qualities keep the music fresh, inventive and diverting from first bar to last.

Handel’s manuscript score has not survived. The music as it is known nowadays was established from printed editions dating from the 1720s through the 1740s. In some early versions, the full score is divided into three suites. Each is dominated by the sounds of particular instruments: No. 1 in F Major by horns; No. 2 in D Major by trumpets; and No. 3 in G Major by flutes. At this concert you will enjoy a generous selection from all three, as chosen by Maestro Seaman.


Symphony No. 1 (A Sea Symphony)
Ralph Vaughan Williams
b. Down Ampney, England / October 12, 1872
d. London, England / August 26, 1958

First performed by the RPO with the Rochester Oratorio Society on March 4, 1979; Theodore Hollenbach, conductor; Mary Burgess, soprano, Ronald Corrado, baritone

This expansive, heartening work marked Vaughan Williams’ transition to creative maturity. In its energy, warmth and thoughtfulness, it forecasts many of his great works to come.

As with countless other members of his generation, he deeply admired the unconventional, profoundly humanistic verses of American poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892). A fellow student, philosopher-to-be Bertrand Russell, introduced him to them while they were studying at Cambridge University. Toward the Unknown Region, Vaughan Williams’ choral setting of a Whitman poem, premiered at the Leeds Music Festival in 1907. It earned him his first great success as a composer.

Three years later, he appeared at the next edition of the same Festival to conduct (on his 38th birthday) the premiere of another, much more expansive Whitman setting – A Sea Symphony. The music was once again received with great favor, solidifying the growing reputation to which the recent first performance of the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis also contributed.
He had begun A Sea Symphony in 1903, and throughout the six years of its creation its contents and title changed several times. He selected the texts from Whitman’s poems entitled Song of the Exposition (beginning of the first movement), Sea Drift (movements one, two and three) and Passage to India (fourth movement). The words concern the sea and sailors, primarily as a metaphorical parallel of a voyage through life – and beyond. From the start, he conceived the piece as symphonic rather than narrative or dramatic. Its layout and emotional progress resemble a conventional, four-movement symphony, albeit one founded on texts that address specific images and ideas.

The inclusion of voices places it within the tradition of British choral music that dates back to Handel and Purcell, but its boldness, symphonic layout and colorful style of orchestration (enhanced by the three months of lessons that Vaughan Williams took with Maurice Ravel in 1908) set it apart. Although it includes quotations from several authentic British folk songs and sea shanties, it displays the influence of such material to a significantly lesser degree than many of his later works.

I: A Song for All Seas, All Ships
A fanfare and choral outburst launch the heroic first movement in majestic and exultant fashion. The chorus, baritone and soprano soloists pay tribute to the breadth and reach by which the sea binds together all the nations of the earth, and warmly salute the many brave people who have lost their lives at sea.

II: On the Beach at Night Alone
The slow movement is an atmospheric nocturne. The baritone soloist and chorus gently continue to explore and celebrate the preceding movement’s faith in the enduring links that bind together every member of the human race. A tranquil orchestral epilogue concludes this section.

III: Scherzo: The Waves
The third movement is the most overtly pictorial of the four. The chorus takes center stage in this exhilarating depiction of the waves that surround and follow a sailing ship as it speeds across the sea on a gusty day.

IV: The Explorers
The noble Finale, the longest section, unites the aspects of the sea that Whitman and Vaughan Williams addressed in the previous movements into a larger, more transcendental meaning. Poet and composer alike believe that the human soul, like the explorers of old, shall set sail into unknown regions, in search of God. A substantial introduction featuring the chorus leads to a slow, radiant duet for the soloists. Then the chorus joyfully helps prepare the ship of the soul for its voyage. In the concluding section, the music achieves a radiant serenity that foretells a destination ruled by love.

© 2007 Don Anderson. All rights reserved.

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