Ralph Vaughan Williams
Wassail Song, Folk Songs of the Four Seasons, Toward the Unknown Region, and Sea Symphony

Born: 12 October 1872, in Down Ampney, Gloucestershire
Died: 26 August 1958, in London

{Biography} {Wassail Song} {Folk Songs of the Four Seasons} {Toward the Unknown Region} {Sea Symphony} {For Further Reading} {For Listening} {Other Pieces}


First, the name. In England, “Ralph” is pronounced “Rafe” (rhyming with “chafe”). And the only reason a composer this distinguished didn’t become “Sir Ralph” is that he turned down the knighthood when it was offered to him, saying that he always refused honors that “involved obligation to anyone in authority.”

Born with “a very small silver spoon” in his mouth, to use his own words, Vaughan Williams lived in Down Ampney, where his father was vicar, for only a few years. After his father’s death when he was 2, Vaughan Williams grew up in his mother’s family home, Leith Hill Place in Surrey. Both sides of the family were distinguished; his mother’s particularly so. Her father was Josiah Wedgwood III (of the famous pottery manufacturing family); her mother the sister of Charles Darwin. Vaughan Williams knew the famous scientist as a boy.

In nineteenth-century England, people of Vaughan Williams’s social class did not normally become professional musicians; moreover, his family did not think he had any talent for music (nor did his first composition teachers). Despite this unpromising background, Vaughan Williams knew early on that he wanted to compose, and trained at the recently-founded Royal College of Music (RCM)[1] as well as at Trinity College, Cambridge. At the latter he earned a Bachelor of Music degree (1894) along with a Bachelor of Arts in History (1895) and eventually a doctorate in music (1901).[2]

On his return to London in 1895 Vaughan Williams served as a church organist for two years (a job he loathed), founded both a choral society and an orchestral society, and sang in the chorus in an 1895 RCM performance of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, revived to celebrate the bicentennial of the composer’s death. In 1897 he quit his position as organist and married Adeline Fisher.[3] The couple immediately departed for Berlin, where Vaughan Williams studied composition for a short while with Max Bruch (1838–1920).[4]

In the period between his return to England and the composition of the Wassail Song (1913), Vaughan Williams lectured and wrote on music (including articles on “Conducting” and “Fugue” for the 1904 edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians), founded and served as principal conductor for the Leith Hill Music Festival,[5] conducted a Palestrina Society,[6] was music director of the Stratford-on-Avon Festival, and edited music, including two volumes of Welcome Songs for the Purcell Society edition (published 1905 and 1910). An especially important project for him was the editing of The English Hymnal (first published 1906). For this volume Vaughan Williams scoured the musical past to find the best possible tunes for the texts to be used, dumped outmoded Victorian settings, arranged more than forty folk song melodies, and added freshly written settings by leading British composers. The result was a spectacular artistic achievement for the world of hymnody.

And of course Vaughan Williams himself continued to compose, though not without many frustrations. When we look back at well-known nineteenth-century English composers we see Sir Arthur Sullivan (1842–1900, of Gilbert & Sullivan fame), Sir Edward Elgar (1857–1934), and Frederick Delius (1862–1934), but none of these presented a path for Vaughan Williams to follow (Elgar declined his request to take him on as a pupil). It was up to Vaughan Williams to find his own way, and this he eventually did. One compositional sounding board was his close friend Gustav Holst, whom he had met at the RCM in 1895.[7] Another help was Ravel, with whom he studied for three months in 1908. But undoubtedly the most important impetus was his discovery of English folk song, intensified by his firsthand experience in collecting this material.

Antiquarian interest in English folk music dated back to the early nineteenth century, but the greatest period of collecting folk songs began around 1890, with the Folk Song Society founded in 1898. Vaughan Williams knew many of the foremost collectors, including Cecil Sharp, and in September 1903 he collected his first folk song. The next seven years saw intense activity; in the end he was to gather more than 800 songs and variant versions. He was eventually honored for his contribution by being elected President of the (renamed) English Folk Dance and Song Society in 1932.

In our over-connected world today it is difficult to imagine the people Vaughan Williams encountered and from whom he collected the songs, those who had spent their entire lives within a small geographical radius and who grew up singing songs that had been sung for generations before them. It is also hard for us to fathom a time when people sang as they walked to work, sang while about their work, and then sang again at home in the evening. Even we singers, whose lives in many cases center around music and who certainly sing far, far more than the average person today, have a different relationship to music. Vaughan Williams and his cohorts recognized that this tradition and these songs were in their death throes even then, and worked to capture these treasures before they vanished from the earth forever.

Wassail Song

The Wassail Song grew out of Vaughan Williams’s collecting efforts. He published his arrangement of the tune he had gathered as the last in a collection of folk song settings, the Five English Folk Songs of 1913. The other songs are The Dark-Eyed Sailor, The Springtime of the Year, Just as the Tide was Flowing, and The Lover’s Ghost. Although Vaughan Williams was to turn to folk song for inspiration through much of his life, the five arrangements here are often considered his best; certainly they are the most elaborate, with the material treated freely throughout.

The tune used is sometimes called “The Gloucestershire Wassail” to distinguish it from “The Somerset Wassail,” each title indicating the venue where the song was collected (the “Wassail” song most of us know today—“Here we come a wassailing among the leaves so green”—comes from Yorkshire). The Gloucestershire Wassail appears in both the original Oxford Book of Carols from 1928 (for which Vaughan Williams, who loved carols, was one of the editors) as well as the New Oxford Book of Carols (1992).[8] Vaughan Williams was not the first to encounter the Gloucester Wassail and it can be traced back at least as far as the eighteenth century, but certainly his setting is what has kept it alive. It is one of many songs celebrating the habit of “wassailing” from door to door, with its expectations of drink in exchange for song. Few today realize that well into the nineteenth century the Christmas season was a time of drunken revelry for many; only a concerted effort by the Victorians turned it into the family holiday it is today. In Deck the Halls, for example, the line “Don we now our gay apparel” was originally “Fill the mead cup, drain the barrel,” while “See the blazing Yule before us” was actually “See the flowing bowl before us,” and “sing we joyous all together” is really “Laughing, quaffing, all together.”

But back to the matter at hand. For his setting Vaughan Williams selected six of the eight verses known, leaving out most of the references to specific barnyard animals (the “ox” Vaughan Williams refers to is first a horse, Dobbin, and then two cows, Broad May and Colly, in the original). For “our bread it is white” it is worth remembering that at the time the song was created, white bread was not associated with negative nutritional value, blandness, and unappealing texture, but was rather a delicacy enjoyed by the well-to-do (see Les Misérables—the book—where the only reason Valjean will eat white bread is that otherwise his beloved Cosette will insist upon eating black to be like him).

Vaughan Williams begins the arrangement with a haunting introduction. Although the tune itself opens with a rising fourth (E–A), Vaughan Williams commences with a series of risings fifths and then fourths (A–E at first and only then E–A), generating the hollow, ancient sound of harmony without thirds. He creates rhythmic tension by first following the proper stress emphasis of the word “Wassail,” presenting it as expected on the upbeat, and then going against this by placing it on the downbeat—throwing choruses off in rehearsal though ideally not in performance. Only after all voices have entered do the tenors bring forth the tune itself, eventually handed about to other parts as well. Throughout the work dynamics are of special importance, for if properly followed (another choral challenge) the impression Vaughan Williams creates is that of singers approaching from afar, eventually singing full force when they are nearest to the listener, and then fading away as they head off into the distance, ending with the altos alone on a ppp rising fifth.

Folk Songs of the Four Seasons

Vaughan Williams wrote his Folk Songs of the Four Seasons in 1949, the year he turned 77. One might think he had little left to say in the realm of folk song arrangement, a process he had first undertaken more than forty years previously, but Julian Onderdonk sees some of these new settings as “among the most interesting of his entire career” (Cambridge Companion, 145). The work, classified by Vaughan Williams as a cantata, is written for the not-so-common combination of women’s voices and orchestra. It was composed for the National Federation of Women’s Institutes and received its premiere on 15 June 1950 at the Royal Albert Hall. The concert was of the sort Vaughan Williams encouraged through his entire career, involving as many amateurs as possible. In this case the vocalists were the massed choirs of the National Federation, for the jaw-dropping total of 3,000 singers (a far cry from the performance I sang (May 2015), with the twenty voices of Concentus Women’s Chorus and a chamber component of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra). 

The cantata is organized in four sections, one for each season, with a Prologue at the very beginning. The structure is as follows:


To the Ploughboy (chorus, semi-chorus descant, orchestra)


1. Early in the Spring (3v chorus only, introduced by solo clarinet) 

2. The Lark in the Morning (2v chorus, orchestra)

3. May Song  (chorus, semi-chorus descant, orchestra)


1a. Summer is a-coming in (chorus, 4v semi-chorus, orchestra)

1b. The Cuckoo  (chorus, semi-chorus, orchestra)

1a. repeat of Summer is a-coming in

2. The Sprig of Thyme (chorus, descant, orchestra)

3. The Sheep Shearing (2v chorus only, introduced by solo oboe)

4. The Green Meadow (chorus, orchestra)


1. John Barleycorn (chorus, 2v semi-chorus, orchestra)

2. The Unquiet Grave (3v chorus only, with solo instrumental introduction)

3. An Acre of Land (chorus, orchestra)


1. Children’s Christmas Song (2v chorus, orchestra)

2. Wassail Song (chorus, descant, orchestra)

3. In Bethlehem City (3v chorus only, with solo instrumental introduction) 

4. God Bless the Master (chorus, descant, orchestra)

It is impossible for this twenty-first century American writer to say just how well-known these folk songs would have been to a mid-twentieth-century English singer. The thirteenth-century Sumer Canon that forms the basis of Summer 1a is possibly the most famous piece of medieval music today, and the Wassail Song of Winter 2 is a version of the same tune used for the independent choral work discussed above. Winter 4, God Bless the Master, is a different tune than the one used in Vaughan Williams’s lovely Fantasia on Christmas Carols. The others were new to me, but the sentiments are familiar to anyone who knows English folk songs: happy or unhappy love set against a background of rural life and an abiding Christianity. One must embrace this ethos wholeheartedly to avoid laughing at lyrics such as “When we have a-sheared all our jolly, jolly sheep, what joy can be greater than to talk of their increase?” (Spring 3, The Sheep Shearing. I mean, really). 

Many songs are strophic or semi-strophic, and—I confess—not all were especially compelling as I was learning them (exception: text notwithstanding, Spring 3, The Sheep Shearing, with its funky alto melodic line, delicious hemiola that starts nine full bars from the end, and that unconventional ending with the altus a forbidden fourth below the soprano’s tonic. Very evocative). But all reservations I may have had about the songs vanished in our first orchestral rehearsal with the downbeat of the prologue. Vaughan Williams’s instrumental genius was everywhere in evidence, making the well-worn melodies sparkle and dance. To my delight, echoes (forerunners, really) of his late masterpiece Hodie were in evidence as well, e.g. the Prologue rhythms that will return with the opening to Hodie, the solo introduction to Spring I with its whisper of what we’ll hear a few years later in the introduction to the glorious baritone solo “The Oxen” in Hodie.

Vaughan Williams is currently undergoing a “revival,” or more precisely a correction to the inaccurate mid-century dismissal of his style. Musicians today are recognizing and appreciating his incredible inventiveness, his ability to wrap the familiar in the new, his creation of sounds of splendour and awe. We are all the richer for this new understanding.

Toward the Unknown Region

Toward the Unknown Region evidently began as a challenge with Gustav Holst. Both composers being “stuck,” as Vaughan Williams claimed, they agreed to set the same text. Vaughan Williams completed his piece in 1906; no work by Holst on this text seems to survive. Regardless of origin, Toward the Unknown Region also apparently functioned as a memorial for Frederick Maitland (d. 19 December 1906), the famous legal historian who was married to Vaughan Williams’s sister-in-law Florence. The work was dedicated to her, though the dedication does not appear in the 1924 Stainer and Bell edition owned by Sibley; perhaps it was in the edition published in 1907 by Breitkopf & Härtel. Maitland’s widow later married Darwin’s son (yes, the world of the intelligentsia in imperial Britain was a small one).

Vaughan Williams’s former teacher Charles Villiers Stanford was the chief conductor at the important Leeds Festival and he arranged for Toward the Unknown Region to be performed during the 1907 season. Music festivals were major venues in contemporary musical life, and the critical and audience success of the work’s premiere, conducted by Vaughan Williams himself on October 10, was a significant milestone for the composer.

The work is set for large orchestra: 3 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 Bb clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, 2 harps, organ, SATB chorus, and strings. In the score (or at least the 1924 edition), Vaughan Williams indicates that a much smaller orchestra may be used: 2 flutes, oboe, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, “harp” (played by piano), and strings, and he gives in small notes what the reduced orchestra should play. For example, the trombone and tuba parts of mm. 4 and 5 are given in small notes to the clarinets, bassoons, and horns.

Vaughan Williams takes as his text a poem by the iconoclastic American poet Walt Whitman (1819–1892). Whitman is best known for his Leaves of Grass, a poetry collection that contained just twelve poems (including “Song of Myself”) in its first edition of 1855 but was continually revised, expanded, and reissued by Whitman throughout his life. Celebrated for its free verse and sometimes earthy tone (Whitman was fired from one job because of the collection’s supposed immorality), Leaves of Grass includes such well-known works as “I Hear America Singing,” “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” “I Sing the Body Electric,” “O Captain! My Captain” (on Lincoln’s death), and “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” (also on Lincoln’s death, and set by Hindemith and by Robert Sanders, the latter’s composition an evocative though little-known work). Whitman, to whose work Vaughan Williams was introduced in 1892 by the philosopher Bertrand Russell, was one of the composer’s favorite poets. He turned to his poetry for the Sea Symphony and for two separate sections of Dona Nobis Pacem, “Beat Beat Drums” and “Dirge for Two Veterans” (the latter also set by Holst). Important predecessors for the use of Whitman include Stanford (Elegiac Ode, 1884) and Delius (Sea Drift, 1904).

You will look in vain in Leaves of Grass for a poem called “Toward the Unknown Region;” Vaughan Williams’s title is drawn from the second line of “Darest thou now O soul,” which appears in Leaves of Grass as the first poem in the subset “Whispers of Heavenly Death.” The five stanzas of the poem are as follows:

Darest thou now O soul,
Walk out with me toward the unknown region,
Where neither ground is for the feet nor any path to follow?

No map there, nor guide,
Nor voice sounding, nor touch of human hand,
Nor face with blooming flesh, nor lips, nor eyes, are in that land.

I know it not O soul,
Nor dost thou, all is a blank before us,
All waits undream’d of in that region, that inaccessible land.

Till when the ties loosen,
All but the ties eternal, Time and Space,
Nor darkness, gravitation, sense, nor any bounds bounding us.

Then we burst forth, we float,
In Time and Space O soul, prepared for them,
Equal, equipt at last (O joy! O fruit of all!) them to fulfil O soul.

Each stanza of the poem gets its own musical section, with the first four preceded by brief orchestral introductions. Vaughan Williams uses a vaguely rondo-ish structure here, with Stanza 3 sharing material with Stanza 1 (the opening) and Stanza 2 (the imitative rising figures of m. 30 [Letter C] and m. 68 [Letter F]). Stanza 1 goes by quickly in a mere nine measures, starting with voices in octaves and following a uniform homorhythmic texture throughout. Stanza 2 is three times as long (27 measures), and soon moves from its own opening octaves to a varied contrapuntal character. Stanza 3 is the longest yet, incorporating material from earlier stanzas as noted. Stanza 4 is again soon over, in thirteen measures, with the basses beginning Stanza 5 (“Then” in m. 112) while the top three voices are still finishing the text of Stanza 4. At m. 121 (Letter O), the full triumphal text bursts forth (while we sing, oddly enough, “Then we burst forth”). This theme, by the way, should remind the experienced chorister of Vaughan Williams’s resounding “Sine nomine” hymn, For all the Saints.

Stanza 5 takes up almost half of the piece in terms of measure numbers, but not nearly that in terms of actual time since the tempo indications move from the initial maestoso moderato of m. 117 to poco animando (m. 128), to poco animando again (m. 137, Letter P), to poco animando yet again (m. 150), and then sempre animando (m. 158, Letter R), just in case we had forgotten that things were speeding up. We slow down only as we approach the end. Various writers have suggested Parry’s Blest Pair of Sirens as the structural model for Vaughan Williams in this work, and certainly the build towards the climax is similar.

This is not an especially difficult work to sing, assuming you’re paying attention (e.g., Db for alto and bass in m. 162; descending line for soprano and alto at m. 90). Vaughan Williams is generous with his octave doublings, and once you’ve got them in your ear, the melodies and chord choices seem inevitable (the mark of a good composer, of course). And since it’s not “that hard,” we can and should lavish our care and attention on making the text come alive (e.g., caressing the gentle dissonance of the alto 1 F against the soprano G on “region” in m. 15, fading away on the second syllable). The work is deliciously Vaughan Williams, and he returned to its aural world in later compositions; there are numerous similarities, for example, with the exquisite Serenade to Music written more than 20 years later. For me, at least, it is a joy to sing a piece I’ve read about for years but never heard, and to discover that’s it’s a hidden treasure.

Sea Symphony

Vaughan Williams began work on his Sea Symphony, his first, in 1903, working on it off and on until 1909 (with 1908/1909 being the period of greatest work; he revised it in the 1920s).  He dedicated the composition to his cousin (and friend) Ralph Wedgwood.  The work premiered at the 1910 Leeds Festival, the same festival where Toward the Unknown Region debuted in 1907.  The other works on the program were Rachmaninoff’s C Minor Piano Concerto (the second, performed by the composer) and Strauss’s Don Juan.  As with Toward the Unknown Region, the fact that Vaughan Williams’s former composition teacher Charles Villiers Stanford was the festival director paved the way for the performance.  Vaughan Williams himself conducted; the performance took place on his thirty-eighth birthday.  Ursula Vaughan Williams called it a “major ordeal” for the composer, who did not think the rendition was very good.  Nonetheless, the work’s quality was widely recognized, and it (with Toward the Unknown Region) helped establish him as a significant English composer.  Vaughan Williams himself thought it was the best work he had written up to that time.

The work was a first in many respects.  For Vaughan Williams it was his first symphony; it was his longest work to date; and it was the longest British symphony up to that time as well.  But it represents the logical outgrowth of earlier work as well.  The New Grove lists six orchestral works composed before the Sea Symphony was begun, as well as four choral works, numerous songs, and two choral/orchestral compositions (a youthful mass—not the famous one in G Minor from the 1920s—and The Garden of Prosperine to a text by Swinburne).  During the long gestation of the Sea Symphony Vaughan Williams continued to hone his craft through an additional series of one-movement orchestral works, including the lovely In the Fen Country and his three Norfolk Rhapsodies—the third now lost and the second unpublished, but the first alive, well, and quite attractive.  And of course Toward the Unknown Region was completed during the genesis of the Sea Symphony. 

The work’s genre is the sort of thing that scholars like to argue about.  During the work’s gestation Vaughan Williams referred to it variously as his “Walt Whitman Sea Songs,” “Songs of the Sea,” and “The Ocean,” and because the chorus sings almost non-stop in every movement, the composition fits awkwardly into normal expectations for a symphony.  Choral/orchestral works date back to the Baroque, of course, but multi-movement compositions are more frequently called cantatas or oratorios or something else.  Choral use in a symphony per se is more often restricted to a single movement, e.g. Beethoven Ninth, Mahler Second, Mahler Third.  Mahler’s Eighth, of course, is choral throughout, but the work had not been started when Vaughan Williams commenced the Sea Symphony, and it received its première after Sea Symphony was completed.  Rachmaninoff’s choral symphony The Bells postdates the Sea Symphony.  Berlioz called his L’Enfance du Christ a “trilogie sacrée” while La Damnation de Faust was a “légende dramatique.”  Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 2, “Lobgesang” is also problematic in its genre (see the discussion elsewhere in The Choral Singer’s Companion).  And so on.  And although Vaughan Williams went on to write many, many, more choral/orchestral works (for which we singers are very grateful), voices appear only rarely in the other eight symponies he composed: a wordless soprano solo and female chorus in Symphony #7 (Sinfonia antartica) and a wordless soprano to open and close the final movement of Symphony #3 (Pastoral). 

The symphony is in the standard four movements (though the first draft had an extra movement between the current three and four), and, as with Toward the Unknown Region, Whitman is the poet.  Vaughan Williams’s poetic choices are given below; page numbers refer to the 1926 Leaves of Grass “Inclusive Edition” published by Doubleday. 

Movement One, titled by Vaughan Williams “A Song for All Seas, All Ships.”
Opening, from “Behold, the sea itself” through “See, dusky and undulating, the long pennants of smoke” taken from Stanza 8 of Song of the Exposition (p. 171).  Vaughan Williams (but not Whitman) then repeats the first two lines, “Behold, the sea itself / And on its limitless, heaving breast, the ships.” 

Remainder of the first movement, Song for All Seas, All Ships (pp. 221–221), though with the insertion of “Behold, the sea itself” close to the end.  This poem is part of the Sea-Drift section of Leaves of Grass.  Whitman’s Sea-Drift inspired the orchestral tone poem of the same name by American composer John Alden Carpenter (1933), possibly his finest orchestral work.  More famously, a portion of its poem Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking (pp. 211–214) was set by Delius in his own Sea Drift (1903–1904; premiered 1906), a substantial one-movement composition for baritone, chorus, and orchestra that many consider his very best work.  Inspiring words!

Movement Two, titled by Vaughan Williams “On the Beach at Night Alone”
The complete poem On the Beach at Night Alone, from Sea-Drift (pp. 220–221).  Whitman also wrote a different poem called On the Beach at Night

Movement Three, titled by Vaughan Williams “(Scherzo) The Waves.” 
The complete poem After the Sea-Ship, from Sea-Drift (p. 222). 

Movement Four, titled by Vaughan Williams “The Explorers.” 
The text consists of various excerpts from the Passage to India portion of Leaves of Grass

  • Opening, from “O vast Rondure” through “Who speak the secret of impassive earth” = the beginning of Stanza 5 (pp. 344–345).
  • From “Yet soul be sure” through “The true son of God singing his songs” = later in Stanza 5 (p. 345). 
  • From “O we can wait no longer” through “Chanting our chant of pleasant exploration” = opening of Stanza 8 (p. 347).
  • From “O Soul thou pleasest me” through “Light of the light, shedding forth universes, thou centre of them” = later in Stanza 8 (p. 348). 
  • From “Swiftly I shrivel” through “Bounding O Soul thou journeyest forth” = later in Stanza 8 (p. 348). 

The concluding text, beginning with “Away O Soul!” is the conclusion of Stanza 9 (the conclusion of the whole poem).  Three lines of Whitman’s poetry are cut between “shake out every sail” and “Sail forth.” 

Obviously, Vaughan Williams thought carefully about his text, sometimes picking and choosing only individual sections of poems.  And his interest in the sea was hardly unique for a composer: think of Debussy’s La Mer, the first movement of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, Elgar’s Sea Pictures, Bantock’s Sea Wanderers, Stanford’s Songs of the Sea, and many others.  Think too, of the crucial role that ships and sailors played before the advent of air travel (Joseph Conrad is a wonderful guide here).  And think as well of what the sea meant to the island nation of Britain, dependent on its navy since the sixteenth century, and even more sea-dependent at the height of its empire.  But aside from the third movement, the texts of the Sea Symphony all have philosophical implications that clearly appealed to Vaughan Williams.  Rather than read all the blather that’s been written about them, though, go over them yourself and make up your own mind as to what they mean. 

The four movements of the Sea Symphony conform outwardly to those of a standard symphony: large scale first and last movements, with an interior slow movement and tri-partite scherzo.  The weight of the piece, as was normal by this time, is in the final movement, which is considerably longer than any of the other three.  But neither the first nor last movement is clearly in sonata form (expected for first movements, and common for last movements); they are perhaps more accurately described as “episodic.”  Nor does Vaughan Williams observe the standard practice in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century symphonies of ending either where one began tonally (e.g., a symphony in D Major would begin and end in that key) or in a closely related key (e.g., a symphony in D Minor could end up in D Major).  Instead, Vaughan Williams practices the “progressive tonality” we can observe as well in the symphonies of his contemporary Mahler, moving from D Major (Mvt. 1) to E Minor (Mvt. 2) to G Minor/G Major (Mvt. 3) to Eb Major (Mvt. 4).

This general harmonic description, however, doesn’t even come close to capturing what Vaughan Williams does close up, as it were, with his mix of tonal and modal elements and rapidly shifting harmonies.  Both the opening and the close of the work demonstrate his lack of interest in convention.  The key signature of the first movement is two sharps—thus, either D Major or B Minor.  The first chord, though (reiterated eight times by the horns and trumpets), is a Bb minor triad, none of whose pitches (Bb, Db, and F) are part of D Major or B Minor.  We then enter, alone, also on a reiterated Bb minor triad, to sing “Behold the.”  And then suddenly, unexpectedly, on that crucial, crucial word, “sea,” we sing a D Major triad—accompanied at first just by timpani and organ, with the full orchestra crashing like a wave against us only on the second beat of that measure.  And the closing of the piece, though a clear Eb major triad, undercuts a true sense of finality by presenting the sonority in first inversion. 

Vaughan Williams’s harmonic language is one of the reasons his works are so much fun to sing.  They hit the intellectual sweet spot of material that is difficult enough to be challenging, but not so impossible as to be discouraging.  And his constant harmonic shifts always come home tonally (eventually), which is aurally satisfying.  Having said that, we still need to pay attention.  To cite just two tricky spots in the alto part:

1.  first movement, mm. 330–331, where the impulse is to leap from D up to A, rather than  to the correct G
2.  first movement, m. 346, where the instinct is to sing C sharp rather than the C natural the composer wrote.

One early critic called the work “exeedingly difficult” for both chorus and orchestra, and an early performance at Cambridge University omitted the Scherzo because of its challenges.  So altogether, we reasonably competent early twenty-first century choristers are doing fairly well. 

What else?  Well, one of the nice things about orchestras from this time (for those of us who love orchestral music) is that they tend to be quite large, and Vaughan Williams did not stint here.  Although he sanctions performances with smaller forces (and also says it’s okay to perform individual movements), what he really wanted was a piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, English Horn, two clarinets in A and one in Bb, a bass clarinet, two bassoons and a contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones and a tuba, timpani, triangle, side drum, bass drum, cymbals, two harps (yum!), organ, and strings (with first violins themselves divisi).  Oh, and chorus (semi-chorus for part of the last movement), and soprano and baritone soloists.

Vaughan Williams did not pull this piece out of thin air.  As Stephen Town has pointed out, it shares many features with Stanford’s Elegiac Ode (finished 1884): four movement choral/orchestral work with soprano and baritone soloists on a text by Whitman; first movement in D Major/Minor; second movement with solo baritone (like Vaughan Williams); third movement in G Major/Minor; fourth movement beginning in Eb.  Vaughan Williams admitted to stealing the ending of the third movement from the close of the Missa Solemnis Gloria, and he also noted the inspiration of the fourth movement’s stately opening from Elgar’s Enigma Variations and The Dream of Gerontius.  The allegro agitato section beginning in m. 459 of the last movement sounds like a total crib from Fauré, and he even scatters a few folk songs about.  But the work is still very much his, and some parts foreshadow later works very strongly, such as the use of baritone solo for especially gorgeous slow lyrical writing (e.g., the second movement here, the third movement of Dona nobis pacem, “The Oxen” from Hodie), the close of both the first and last movements (reminiscent of the conclusion of Serenade to Music), as well as the third movement, m. 140 forward (like the conclusion of Hodie), and fourth movement, m. 62 on (the walking bass recalling “Two Veterans” from Dona nobis pacem), and elsewhere. 

A personal note (April 2016): Sea Symphony belongs to a group of choral works I purposely never studied or even listened to in the hope that I would one day have a chance to perform it, since my favorite way of learning a work is from the inside out.  So I was very pleased that the chance finally came (I don’t think it’s ever going to come for the Glagolitic Mass, I’m afraid).  Unlike Toward the Unknown Region, this work was slow to grow on me.  But grow it did, and I now wake up in the morning with various parts running through my head.  Some favorite spots include the section beginning at m. 272 in the first movement (what a melody—and those key changes that go with the rising alto line from m. 295 on!), the gorgeous gorgeous second movement, our hornpipe-y “away, away” section in the last movement, the quintessential Vaughan Williams “singing, singing” lines of that movement from m. 186 forward, the evocative passage at rehearsal letter Gg in the first movement, mm. 394–400 (transformed to a plaintive Eb–Cb in the altos in mm. 534–535 in the last movement), and so on.  The hard work, the effort, the skill that went into this composition—how fortunate we are that Vaughan Williams never gave up on himself but simply kept going, no matter what. 

For Further Reading

Prior to his death Vaughan Williams asked that his second wife (his first died in 1951) write his biography and that Michael Kennedy write about his works; these two books remain standard reference works today (Ursula Vaughan Williams, R.V.W.: A Biography of Ralph Vaughan Williams [Oxford University Press, 1964]; Michael Kennedy, The Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams, 2nd ed. [Oxford University Press, 1980]). Michael Kennedy has also compiled A Catalogue of theWorks of Ralph Vaughan Williams (2nd ed., Oxford University Press, 1996), and the musicologically inclined may wish to consult Neil Butterworth, Ralph Vaughan Williams: A Guide to Research (Garland, 1990); Alain Frogley, ed., Vaughan Williams Studies (Cambridge University Press, 1996); Byron Adams and Robin Wells, eds., Vaughan Williams Essays (2003); and Alain Frogley and Aidan J Thomson, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Vaughan Williams (2013). Two iconographies exist; see John E. Lunn and Ursula Vaughan Williams, Ralph Vaughan Williams: A Pictorial Biography (Oxford University Press, 1971) and Jerrold Northrop Moore, Vaughan Williams: A Life in Photographs (Oxford University Press, 1992). Vaughan Williams’s own writings may be found, among other places, in National Music Other Essays (Clarendon, 1996) as well as The Making of Music (Cornell University Press, 1955), a series of lectures given at Cornell and Yale in 1954. To date there exists no book on his choral music, a major lacuna considering how important he is as a choral writer.

For Listening

An excellent recording devoted to Vaughan Williams’s choral music that contains all of the Five English Folksongs is Over Hill, Over Dale, the Holst Singers with Ian Bostridge and Michael George, conducted by Stephen Layton (Hyperion CDA66777).

Other Pieces Worth Exploring (A Very Incomplete List)

It may surprise singers (who have never stopped performing his music) to learn that after Vaughan Williams’s death his music underwent a general decline in popularity. Fortunately for all musicians, the past few decades have seen a resurgence of interest in his compositions, and his music is again enjoying the appreciation it so richly deserves. Dates given below are dates of completion of the original versions.

The Wassail Song is by no means Vaughan Williams’s only venture into Christmas music.Among his many seasonal creations are a wonderful Fantasia on Christmas Carols (including the splendid On Christmas Night) for baritone, chorus, and orchestra from the year before Wassail Song, while one of the last major pieces he ever wrote was the spectacular Hodie for chorus, soloists, and orchestra, completed in his eighty-second year.

The period of his first maturity, of which the Wassail Song is part, includes many fine works: the songs Linden Lea (1901), Orpheus with his lute (1901?), and Silent Noon (1903); various hymns for The English Hymnal, including the beautiful Come down, O love divine (the tune itself Vaughan Williams named “Down Ampney,” after his birthplace) and the stirring For all the saints; the song cycles Songs of Travel (1904) and On Wenlock Edge (1910; for tenor, string quartet, and piano); Five Mystical Songs(1911, for baritone, chorus, and orchestra; church choristers may have encountered the rousing hymn setting of the last of these, Let all the world); and Four Hymns (1914, for tenor, viola, and strings).

Early orchestral works include In the Fen Country (1904; those who want a literary impression of the Fen Country should read the Lord Peter Wimsey mystery by Dorothy Sayers, The Nine Tailors), the first Norfolk Rhapsody (1906), the sparkling overture to Aristophanes’ comedy The Wasps, (1909; Vaughan Williams provided incidental music for the entire play); The Lark Ascending (1914, for violin and orchestra); as well as what is probably his most famous work, Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, for double string orchestra (1910; Vaughan Williams encountered the theme while compiling The English Hymnal).

Later works include the Mass in g minor (1921), the excellent hymn At the name of Jesus (1925; he called the tune “King’s Weston”), Flos campi (1925; for viola, orchestra, and wordless chorus); the ballet Job (1930); the opera Riders to the Sea (1932); Fantasia on Greensleeves (1934, from his opera Sir John in Love); Dona nobis pacem (1936; remember “Beat, beat, drums”?) the beautiful Serenade to Music (1938, for sixteen singers and orchestra), Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus (1939); the String Quartet in a minor (1944); a triumphant arrangement of the “Old Hundredth” psalm tune for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II (1953); and Ten Blake Songs for voice and oboe (1957).

Vaughan Williams also wrote nine symphonies, the first of which (A Sea Symphony, 1909), uses chorus.[9] He is also highly unusual (especially for a major composer) for having written a tuba concerto as well as a harmonica concerto.


[1] The RCM was founded in 1882. Vaughan Williams started there in 1890, left for Cambridge in 1892, and returned in 1895. His composition teachers at the RCM were Sir Hubert Parry (1848–1918) when he first arrived and later Irish composer Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (1852–1924). Parry is best known today for his choral song Jerusalem; other works receiving praise are the six motets Songs of Farewell and the Symphonic Fantasia 1912. Of his many vocal works, Stanford’s partsong The Bluebird is noteworthy; an attractive motet is Beati quorum via. Vaughan Williams eventually taught composition at the RCM himself.

[2] His composition teacher at Cambridge was the Irish composer Charles Wood (1866–1926), known today for his Anglican church music such as the anthem Expectans expectavi and the double choir Magnificat and Nunc dimittis in F “Collegium Regale”.

[3] Photographs of his wife show her striking resemblance to Virginia Woolf, who was her cousin.

[4] Bruch is known today for his Violin Concerto in G minor, Scottish Fantasy, and Kol Nidrei.

[5] The festival was founded in 1905; Vaughan Williams served as principal conductor for the next 48 years. It was noted for its Bach performances, especially the St. Matthew Passion.

[6] Vaughan Williams was later to conduct both the Bach Choir and the Handel Society.

[7] Holst (1874–1934) is best known today for The Planets (which includes a wordless women’s chorus in the last movement, Neptune) but was in addition the composer of many wonderful choral pieces, including a spectacular Ave Maria for women’s chorus. He also contributed the beautiful hymn In the Bleak Midwinter to The English Hymnal.

[8] In the 1928 volume Vaughan Williams gave the tune a simple four-part setting; the 1992 edition provides an even simpler arrangement by the new editors.

[9] Symphony #2 is known as the “London Symphony,” Symphony #3 as the “Pastoral Symphony,” and Symphony #7 as “Sinfonia antartica.”

Revised April 2016