Sea Voyage: Pioneer Valley Symphony closes season with music of Vaughan Williams, Ravel

Last modified: Thursday, July 24, 2014
There’s nothing like almost dying to put new life into you. So it was for the young, nature-adoring, beauty-bewitched British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, who underwent such an experience just after his first marriage — a near death by drowning:

“Swimming in the North Sea off the coast of England was usually challenging, but he had always been a fine swimmer. Yet today’s waves were overwhelming. Before he knew it, he was being swept farther and farther away from the deserted shore ... just before he gave himself up for lost, a huge wave hurled him onto the rocky shore. Utterly exhausted, he crawled away from the water and lay still for a long time, panting, coughing, thanking God for sparing his life.” (Patrick Kavanaugh; “Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers”)

Vaughan Williams had been seeking to court a more intimate relationship with the subject of his next composition, “A Sea Symphony,” but, seas being what they are, and humans what they are, courtship turned into risk and risk into sheer, naked survival. So much for romance.

Yet, the nearness of death aside, the sea continued to beckon, as all the authors of sea stories will tell you — the Melvilles and the Conrads — with a beguilement that transcends sense or reason, almost as if it were a symbol of life or God itself, a Great Being that says to us, “You love Me? Then take whatever I give you — good and bad, life and death, danger and safety. What does it matter, drowning at 7 or death by old age at 97? They are all part of the play of Creation; they are all good, all sacred ... they are all forms of Me. Accept each with a peaceful and grateful heart.”

The Pioneer Valley Symphony and PVS Chorus, in conjunction with the Hampshire Choral Society and vocal soloists Natalie Polito and David Kravitz, will present Vaughan Williams’ “A Sea Symphony” as their final offering of the season, May 17, at 7:30, at the University of Massachusetts Fine Arts Center in Amherst, with a 6:30 pre-concert talk and a 7 p.m. silent auction.

Also on the program, one of the most impressionistic of impressionistic tone poems, Maurice Ravel’s diaphanous, dreamlike “Une barque sur l’océan” (“A Boat Upon the Ocean”); originally for piano, drawn from his “Miroirs” suite, a work that so delicately, masterfully and beguilingly summons all that is truly oceanic that it comes perilously close to putting to shame any other sea piece ever written, with the possible exception of Debussy’s “La Mer.”

Indeed, upon listening to its softly swelling, heaving chiaroscuro of tone colors, one would never imagine, as in all Ravel’s orchestral transcriptions, that they had ever first seen life on the keyboard. As my colleague composer Robert Stern once observed, Ravel is the only composer about whose music almost all are in agreement that the selfsame pieces whether “Pavane for a Dead Princess” or “Le Tombeau de Couperin,” sound equally wonderful on the piano or in their orchestral dress.

Beyond this, it must be said — and if somebody doesn’t write a book about it soon, I will — that much of Ravel’s music, titled so or not is, in essence, “water music.”

So while I would have to give the young Vaughan Williams high marks for lofty effort, inspiring textual choices, breadth of artistic vision and, at roughly an hour’s journey, sheer endurance, I would have to award the ineluctable Ravel, brief though his song almost always is, with the prize for subtlety, evocativeness, magic and transcendence.

Interestingly, although Ravel was the younger of the two men, he was much the advanced technically and aesthetically; Vaughan Williams being a slow, more plodding genius, realizing in his youthful career that he was suffering from an overdose of the post-Wagnerian style: a heavy, thickly orchestrated chromaticism. Vaughan Williams knew a good thing when he saw it and elected to travel to France to study with Ravel for several months in 1907-1908, whereupon the two became and remained good friends. In Vaughan Williams’ words, the chief thing he learned from Ravel was how to ... orchestrate in points of color, rather than in lines. The lessons were a great success and Vaughan Williams’ previously stodgy style underwent a radical streamlining, immediately producing such masterworks as ‘On Wenlock Edge,’ the rapturously beautiful ‘Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis,’ and finally, “A Sea Symphony.”

A personal connection

I have a special personal passion, dare I say love, for Vaughan Williams. I lived in England for an extended period of time, returning time and time again to seek out and purchase every last leaf of music he ever composed; indeed, I would be willing to argue that I possess the best Vaughan Williams collection in North America, perhaps even the British Isles. Finding that I lived in the same town as Roy Douglas, the composer who worked with Vaughan Williams the last decade of his life, helping him tidy up his fertile, if somewhat chaotic, composing life, I went so far as to walk right up and knock on the door of his mansion, whereupon he invited me in and offered me, yes, tea. Douglas eventually wrote a book on their time together entitled “Working with RVW.”

This was in the 1970s, when Douglas was in his 70s and enjoyed touring the English countryside on his motorcycle. Today he is still with us, God bless him, at a sprightly 106! Once comfortably seated, he would light his pipe and we would speak of his days with RVW and fellow British composer William Walton and, upon subsequent visits, he was gentleman enough to give ear to my own music; amazingly, he trusted me enough to lend me original RVW manuscripts over a period of days, documents with which I might easily have absconded had I half a mind to. We also spoke of his days working in the British film scoring industry, where he orchestrated the famous “Warsaw Concerto,” a kind of neo-Rachmaninoff concertino, for composer Richard Addinsell, for the film “Fighter Squadron.” And, we sat beside the large, long, heavy-legged, elegantly leather-covered table that served as Vaughan William’s composing desk.

“Behold, the sea!”

With this heads-up call begins the first and arguably most ambitious of Vaughan Williams’ nine symphonies, “A Sea Symphony,” for chorus and orchestra. There are four movements: “A Song for All Seas,” “All Ships,” “On the Beach at Night Alone,” “The Waves” and, finally, “The Explorers.”

I’ve never been a believer in music analysis where art is concerned — either you get it or you don’t. Where Vaughan Williams is concerned, you always get it because he was/is/will ever be a great, humble soul, chronically marginalized by those who believe art needs to contain a heavy intellectual infrastructure, who cared enough not only to make his music meaningful, but also to ensure that it be, at the same time, also deeply beautiful.

What more can anyone ask? Come and behold!

Joseph Marcello is an author and composer. He can be reached at josephmarcello@verizon.net.

Tickets for the May 17 concert cost $20; $17 for seniors; $6 for students and children. To reserve, call the Fine Arts Center box office at 545-2511 or visit fac.umass.edu/Online.