Tuesday, November 13 , 2018, 7:16 pm | Fair 61º

 
 
 
 

Gerald Carpenter: Roll with the Motion of ‘A Sea Symphony’

Sunday performance will kicks off 10th annual Santa Barbara Sea Festival

The Santa Barbara Choral Society, Chorus and Orchestra, conducted by JoAnne Wasserman, will perform A Sea Symphony (1909) by Ralph Vaughan Williams, at 3 p.m. Sunday at The Granada.

Solo passages will be sung by soprano Tamara Bevard and baritone Lester Lynch. On the same program will be the much shorter Lux Aeterna by American composer Morten Lauridsen (born in 1943). The concerts will mark the opening of the 10th annual Santa Barbara Sea Festival on May 15.

Whatever you do, don’t try to fight the Sea Symphony; you’ll be exhausted in minutes. It opens with a gust of brass, followed by a choral shout of “Behold the sea itself!” and the music starts rolling toward you in huge waves. Then there’s a sudden calm, after which the baritone begins the climb back to the crest.

The chorus joins in, building and building, until they come to the crest with “... of waves spreading and spreading far as the eye can reach/Of dashing spray, and the winds piping and blowing ... .” Then the baritone returns, in a beautiful and thrilling melody, with: “And out of these a chant for the sailors of all nations.” As the chorus takes up the chant, you should be on top of the wave, riding it all the way to the end and “O farther, farther, farther sail!”

The words are from the “Sea Drift” section of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Vaughan Williams wasn’t the first composer to set them to music — listen to Frederick Delius’ dreamy and haunting Sea Drift from 1901 — nor the last by a long chalk to be inspired by the words — the American John Alden Carpenter’s lovely 1933 tone poem Sea Drift — but he was certainly the one who came closest to capturing the grandeur of Whitman’s vision in musical terms.

He called it a “symphony” — with as much right, I suppose, as Gustav Mahler, at about the same time, had to call his wild joining of a medieval hymn to the last act of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust his Symphony No. 8 — but he never called it his Symphony No. 1. It is more of a cantata, and he saw himself as a choral composer.

He never intended to be a symphonist, until young George Butterworth told him — after the Sea Symphony — that he “ought to write a symphony.” So he did, the London Symphony, which he allowed to be called the Symphony No. 2. Then wrote seven more, which make up the greatest symphonic oeuvre in the history of English music.

Tickets for A Sea Symphony are available at The Granada box office, 1216 State St., by calling 805.899.2222, or click here to purchase tickets online.

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributor. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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