A Sea Symphony – From Program to Diagram

Fan 2015-10-24 Saturday

The 2015-2016 season sees Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s The Decades Project that focuses on musical works composed between 1900 and 1920, in other words, an era ending with the carnage of WWI. The idea is to grasp through music greater intellectual trends of one of the most creative periods of human history. Tonight’s concert, with “sea” as the theme, is the first of the series that also includes Sibelius, Mahler, Rachmaninoff, Richard Strauss, Ravel, Elgar and Nielsen. There are two works in the program: Claude Debussy’s tone poem La mer (1903) and Ralph Vaughan Williams’ A Sea Symphony (1903-1909).

If one wants to describe Debussy in a cheeky fashion, one might say he manages to turn “program” into “diagram”. From the symphonic repertoire of late Classical and early Romantic periods to the descriptive and narrative music of late Romantic period, the verbal linearity of programming eroded the contrapuntal complexity of the late Baroque period. Debussy’s La mer seemingly follows such descriptive program in its depiction of the sea. In reality, this is an highly nonlinear piece of music as there is no real development required for a linear thesis. It installs in one’s mind’s eye a total picture of the sea – in its wavy monotones punctuated by outbursts of the terrifying and the exuberant. The mundane and the mythical are continuous on the sea. And in repetition not in logic argument, a thesis comes into being. A man of reason may say this is wrong, yet his rationality cannot disprove the aural confirmation of the music!

 

For the very first time – this is a truly historical moment at the same time juvenile and profound – Toronto Symphony Orchestra replaces usual wordy program note with diagrams

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There are many sympathetic sentiments with Debussy in Vaughan Williams’ youthful choral symphony A Sea Symphony, yet it still tries very hard – in the fin-de-siècle confusion – to cling to a very British sensibility that is at the same time introspective and grand, pastoral and imperial. Such a complex composite of sensibility is carried on by a text  from an American Walt Whitman whose free-flowing poetry breaks the limit of traditional poetic forms. It’s noteworthy that it took a young Vaughan Williams seven years to finish the work (as if it is his PhD thesis). Here is what the composer Simon Whalley says about the work:

“Vaughan Williams’s first symphonic essay started life as a series of choral settings of poems from Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. Like many talented young composers, he poured out original ideas but at first lacked the musical maturity to structure his arguments successfully; it took six years to be completed. The result is a marvelous, broad canvas of sea pictures, powerful in its sheer enormity of thought and variety of musical responses to his chosen texts.”

The problem, of course, is that prolonged variety can become monotonous, unless one is captured by the mythical heart of such monotony. Soprano Erin Wall and baritone Russell Braun gave an engaging performance along with the chorus. Pity the English lyrics are hard to follow even with printed text in hand. Despite my preference for the diagrammatic over programmatic, I found myself still read the lyric in order to capture the meaning of music. A shame indeed.

 

 

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