Musical Explanation 4/3: A Sea Symphony by Vaughan Williams
A Sea Symphony was almost ruined for me forever, because it was during the car ride home after watching Leonard Slatkin conduct this work when I was ten years old that my father chose to give me the 'sex talk.' It has to be a great, great piece of music to recover from the pavlovian queasiness of that tragicomically horrifying memory. I doubt, were it Wagner or Richard Strauss, I could ever listen to those composers ever again.
The most important thing to demand from music, perhaps from art, is the inner glow. The glow that tells you we're not alone, that the world exists not only to demand of you but to give you something back without reservation, the glow that tells you that the world is always worth saying yes to, and that hope is always around the corner. You can appreciate art without the glow, you can certainly be infatuated by it, but I find it difficult to love, and I'd imagine that most other people do too. Those who claim to love it always require explanations for why they love such things, they cannot simply love.
When properly played, nobody gives us so much of that hopeful glow the way Bach does, and that's why he is even now when he's so overplayed he's the most beloved of all composers. Before Bach, perhaps most of the great composers had a clarion blaze of aural sun that was too brilliant for human ears, but all the greatest composers who come after Bach have some variation on his glowingly warm embrace of life. Mozart and Beethoven glow to nearly the same degree, Schubert and Haydn scarcely less, then perhaps Brahms and Schumann and Mendelssohn, Dvorak and Smetana and Janacek certainly have some kind of exuberant radiance to them - perhaps even a gusto, Rossini and Verdi and even Puccini have a shine to them if not a glow, Mahler and Bruckner are at very least incandescent if not glowing, perhaps Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich and Mussorgsky have an ostentatious effulgence in place of the glow, Sibelius and Nielsen have a kind of cold glare, while Debussy and Ravel have at very least a beautiful shimmer, Americans like Copland and Ives and Bernstein certainly have warmth if not glow (and let's not even try to go through the many glories of Popular Music). The mystery of such music is not in its complexity, but in its seeming simplicity. How can such basic music concepts as a series of chords properly placed, perhaps over a melody, give off such infinite depth. This, to me, is the true purpose of great music, and the purpose which the 20th century, for all its many musical glories, did its best to kill off.
Wagner, on the other hand, does not have that glow, and neither does Liszt. Neither do Richard Strauss or Schoenberg, neither does Prokofiev or Liszt. Stravinsky and Bartok have it it in their folkier moments but that's the only music of theirs you can truly rely on them to get you through the day, and then there are the true moderns... There is awe-inspiring genius to all this music, but it is an empty kind of genius more interested in impressing us than embracing us, and listening to their music eventually makes you feel more alone, not less. I admire such composers, but I cannot love them, nor, I am convinced, can such music love me.
But what is the English form of this glow, the feeling you get from Britten, Elgar, Holst, and most particularly from Ralph Vaughan Williams? In keeping with the British culture of embarrassment, perhaps it's a blush... Or perhaps, coming from what the Germans called "The Land Without Music" ("Das Land Ohne Musik"), it's an afterglow... But regardless, why is the greatest music of England not ten times more beloved around the globe?
I have no idea if A Sea Symphony is a symphony at all, but if it is, it's the first great British Symphony - predating either of Elgar's by more than five years. Vaughan Williams was one of many composers in his time-period who wrote a huge sprawling work for huge orchestra and chorus as a very young man; long before any of them attained eminence in the hope that people would notice them - with very few exceptions, nobody did until much later.
It's such a sprawling piece of music that it's easy to think of as a piece of long-winded bombast. It's anything but that, though I wonder if you have to achieve a amount of life-experience in order to appreciate it properly. You have to have the kind of long-held memories of the Sea - of ritual trips with your family to the beach, of trying to reel in a fish during a boating trip with cousins and sailing in a storm with grade school friends, of good times with lost loves inside the beach house, of standing at night on an intruded upon private beach with half your close friends in the world as the more brave among them skinny-dip among the iridescent jellyfish and you playfully wrestle with your crush and lose your nerve to kiss her after you tackle her to the ground, of driving through the Pacific cliffs against the gale winds with your father and brother, of standing on the Maine coastline at your best friend's house with his family, of walking around the abandoned 1930's architecture of the Jersey shore with one of your other best friends and his friends from home, of summer camp campfires on a lake, of biking as a child along the Gunpowder River with your father, of walking on Lake Michigan in lively Chicago with your parents and looking out alone on Lake Erie in depressing Cleveland before your college roommate's wedding, of your first kiss in a Greek cruiseship on the Black Sea, of the overwhelming skylines while biking over the East River and the Charles and walking next to the Thames, of pulling your drunk friend back after he nearly falls off the Charles Bridge in Prague, of manmade canals in Venice and fountains in Rome, of beautiful women in Athens and the Greek Islands, of angry seagulls in Brighton stealing your chips, of festivals in the Baltimore Inner Harbor as you watch the boats pass through and risky drinking near the dock at Fell's Point, of canoeing rapids on the Rapahanock in Virginia, of douchey bars in Dewey Beach and huge beach houses in Cape May, of fording the Mediterranean with the legs of your pants up while trying not to gawk at the topless bathers of Provence, of walking the beaches of Tel Aviv in the early morning while seeing ancient Israeli veterans with lost limbs push themselves out to sea, of floating in the Dead Sea with your unrequited Israeli love, of walking next to the Mediterranean in Haifa with your closest female friend, of taking a fairy to and back from the great music of the Newport Folk Festival with one of your best friends as your heart is breaking from yet another unrequited love, of delicious meals and well-stocked English bookstores in Eilat, of riding your bike up the Delaware coast and seeing momentary views of the Atlantic on one side and the Bay on the other, of seeing 4th of July fireworks from a lakeside porch, of beginning this blog while living for a summer at the beach. Once you understand the Sea as only a person who's lived a portion of his life has, the maritime atmosphere of this music becomes so vivid and palpable, not just of your physical memories of the sea, but of the spiritual sea.
All through history and literature and art, the sea is the largest metaphor we have of the swirling, churning unconscious: from The Odyssey to Moses and Jonah to The Tempest and Twelfth Night to Moby Dick and the Ancient Marriner to Courbet and Gericault and Turner and Friedrich and Winslow Homer and George Bellows, to Wagner and Debussy and Britten, the sea has to mean so much more to us than merely the sea. It is that place which we mammals cannot fathom - and that place within ourselves to which it is lethal to dive in too deep, a place seemingly without bottom but with life and beauties and dangers beyond our imaginings.
The text is by Walt Whitman, a poet whom it's taken me years to love, but whom I finally seem to understand. I have little problem with Whitman's artlessness, my problem is Whitman's lists - the catalogues of all those far-flung people, places, and things he embraces. And yet, as I read The Sleepers on Friday night, I realized that within Whitman is precisely that glow which I so value in music. The catalogues are there to increase the connectivity of all things - there is nothing that Whitman does not try to love, and that love comes to us even today as a firm embrace of all things lively and exuberant.
Think of these verses by Whitman in the second movement of the Sea Symphony:
On the beach at night alone, As the old mother sways her to and fro singing her husky song, As I watch the bright stars shining, I think a thought of the clef of the universes and of the future.
A vast similitude interlocks all,
All distances of place however wide, All distances of time,
All souls, all living bodies though they be ever so different,
All identities that have existed or may exist
All lives and deaths, all of the past, present, future, This vast similitude spans them, and always has spann'd, And shall forever span them and compactly hold and enclose them.
I have to imagine that most humans who ever live have a luminescent moment on the water like this, when we are alone, but the scape is so beautiful that you feel both terrified and elated by your insignificance. You are present in eternity, the awesome is present all around you, a person can come behind you and kill you without being seen or heard, yet it does not matter at all. We come from the eternity of this natural scape, and we shall return to it. Listen to Vaughan Williams's music, this soft, brooding, levitating music contains all the luminescence of the universe we can possibly take in.
O vast Rondure, swimming in space, Cover'd all over with visible power and beauty, Alternate light and day and the teeming spiritual darkness, Unspeakable high processions of sun and moon and countless stars above, Below, the manifold grass and waters, animals, mountains, trees, With inscrutable purpose, some hidden prophetic intention, Now first it seems my thought begins to span thee.
Down from the gardens of Asia descending radiating, Adam and Eve appear, then their myriad progeny after them, Wandering, yearning, curious, with restless explorations, With questionings, baffled, formless, feverish, with never-happy hearts, With that sad incessant refrain, Wherefore unsatisfied soul? and Whither O mocking life?
Ah who shall soothe these feverish children? Who Justify these restless explorations? Who speak the secret of impassive earth? Who bind it to us? what is this separate Nature so unnatural? What is this earth to our affections? (unloving earth, without a throb to answer ours, Cold earth, the place of graves.)
Yet soul be sure the first intent remains, and shall be carried out, Perhaps even now the time has arrived.
After the seas are all cross'd, (as they seem already cross'd,) After the great captains and engineers have accomplish'd their work, After the noble inventors, after the scientists, the chemist, the geologist, ethnologist, Finally shall come the poet worthy that name, The true son of God shall come singing his songs.
This is just the first third of the Whitman verse which RVW employs. Or, if you have a spare half-hour, listen to the mystically transcendent finale. Whitman's verses here cry out for a music that not only takes in this spiritual sea. From this point on, Whitman exhorts the soul to soar and chart the innumerable dangers and beauties and visions and vitalities of this sea of the spirit. Here is the last little bit of his verse:
Away O soul! hoist instantly the anchor! Cut the hawsers -- haul out -- shake out every sail!
Reckless O soul, exploring, I with thee, and thou with me,
Sail forth -- steer for the deep waters only, For we are bound where mariner has not yet dared to go, And we will risk the ship, ourselves and all.
O my brave soul! O farther farther sail! O daring joy, but safe! are they not all the seas of God? O farther, farther, farther sail!
And after Whitman writes this, Vaughan Williams allows for no more loud, crashing, bombastic waves of the shore. There is merely the pulsing of the deep sea tides at their surface on a calm night, to and fro, back and forth, port and aft, gently respirating like the very breath of life.