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MSO to perform Vaughan Williams’ “Whitman Symphony”

Classical Preview

Nov. 16, 2010
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Many composers have set poems by Walt Whitman to music, but no one did it more beautifully and sensitively to the nuances of the words than Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). One of the greatest composers not only of England but of the world, he first became acquainted with Whitman when a fellow schoolboy at Cambridge named Bertrand Russell gave him a copy of Leaves of Grass.

Whitman wrote his poetry in long-line free verse rather than rhyme and meter. Vaughan Williams was nevertheless able to set it with melodic lyricism equal to anything in classical music for voice.

On Nov. 26-27 the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and Chorus will perform Vaughan Williams’ thrilling Symphony No. 1, which premiered in 1910. It’s subtitled “A Sea Symphony” because the Whitman poems in it delve the depths and scan the expanses of not only the watery seas of the oceans but also the starry ocean of the starry night sky.

The first movement opens awesomely with a fortissimo choral proclamation "Behold the sea itself!" and then turns into a sort of symphonic sea chantey to lines by Whitman celebrating the adventurousness of men who braved the high seas before wooden hulls were replaced by metal ones and sails were replaced by coal-burning steam engines. One baritone and one soprano soloist give added drama to the superb writing for chorus.

In the second movement, the slow movement, Whitman’s “On the Beach at Night Alone,” the solo baritone evokes the overwhelming mystery of a single soul faced with the vast cosmos. The third movement scherzo, for chorus sans vocal soloists, evokes the play of waves on a par with Debussy’s La Mer. And then the finale launches forth into the vast starry mystery glimpsed from the second movement’s seashore.

For the finale Vaughan Williams assembled some of the greatest lines from Whitman’s “Passage to India.” Here the subject is the voyage of a life across a lifespan and of humankind itself across the eons of human existence. It begins with an awesome picture of Earth in space that Whitman gave us in verse a hundred years before NASA’s high-tech photo ("O vast rondure swimming in space..."). Human mateship appears as ecstatic consolation in the face of the vast mystery of the cosmos. The soprano and baritone soloists duet erotically “chanting our chant of pleasant exploration.” Together they, with the entire chorus and orchestra as their spaceship, launch forth into the cosmos—and the audience along with them. A powerful symphonic climax is followed by a serene denouement in which the low string basses signifying the sea alternate with the high strings signifying the stars.

This symphony was last presented here when the MSO Chorus voted it their favorite work to perform. Edo de Waart will conduct it on a program that begins at 8 p.m. on Fri.-Sat. Nov. 26-27. The program will open with Kyoko Takezawa playing the ever-popular Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto.


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