Vaughan Williams and the summer of love

Walt Whitman's line 'Behold the sea itself' opens Ralph Vaughan William's Sea Symphony* in a huge wave of sound that breaks over the audience. Hearing RVW's stroke of genius again at Friday's opening Prom performed by Sakari Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra excited many resonances. Alex Ross' tweet that "the opening gesture of Vaughan Williams's Sea Symphony carries me away every time" resonated with these words written by that great editor and publisher Robert Giroux** for the introduction to Thomas Merton's The Seven Storey Mountain :
In books that become classics ("A classic is a book that remains in print" - Mark Van Doren) the opening words often seem to be inevitable, as if they possibly could not have been otherwise - "Call me Ishmael," "Happy families are all alike," "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."
The opening of the Sea Symphony may be bold and inevitable, but Vaughan Williams is still all too often pigeonholed as a timid English pastoralist. This despite some of the most brutal music ever written coming from his pen, including the Sixth Symphony which is another work that opens with a massive avalanche of sound. It is also still thought in some places that Vaughan Williams' music needs a British conductor. But on Friday the BBC Symphony Orchestra's new Finnish chief conductor Sakari Oramo once again proved that assumption woefully wrong. That great British conductor Sir Adrian Boult will always be my first choice for Vaughan Williams. But my love affair with his nine symphonic masterpieces was first triggered by that American son of German refugees André Previn's more virile interpretations recorded between 1967 and 1972 with the London Symphony Orchestra - how many other celebrated interpreters of Vaughan Williams are on record as having dabbled in hallucinogens? As we agonise over how to attract young audiences to classical music it is worth remembering that in the late 1960s young audiences - including a young me - were listening to Vaughan Williams and Michael Pretorius as well as Led Zeppelin thanks to the advocacy of animateurs such André Previn and David Munrow. We may have Twitter, but where are today's equivalents of those prodigiously talented generation-bridging animateurs?

1967 was the 'summer of love' and that is reflected in Andre's sartorial tastes as captured on the artwork for my original vinyl LP set of his RCA RVW cycle seen above. And resonance excites resonance. Walt Whitman was a quasi-transcedentalist and Saturday's opening Prom also included the first performance of Julian Anderson's Harmony*** which sets a text by the nineteenth century mystic Richard Jefferies - will mysticism be the next big thing at the Proms? Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk, peace activist and friend of Joan Baez, and his advocacy of inter-religious dialogue in the 1960s led him to the mystical tradition of Sufism. That tradition provides the following personal favourite among inevitable openings which comes from Robert Irwin's autobiographical tale of Sufis, mystics and the sixties Memoirs of a Dervish:

It was in my first year at Oxford that I decided I wanted to become a Sufi saint. I wish I could remember more.
I remember my own recent and far more modest travels with a Sufi saint here.

* The opening line of the Sea Symphony is usually mistakenly quoted as 'Behold the sea' as the word 'itself' is inevitably drowned - in more ways than one - by the first orchestral crescendo.

** Coincidentally, or perhaps not, Alex's book The Rest is Noise is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, the publishing house that Robert Giroux joined in 1964 and which is now owned by Macmillan, a subsidiary of the German multi-national Georg von Holtzbrinck Publishing Group.

*** An article titled In Harmony by Julian Anderson in The Musical Times introduced the ideas and music of Tristan Murail.

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Pliable said…
Classical music trivia. What is the link between André Previn and Sakari Oramo, other than that they both do Vaughan Williams rather well?

Previn was one of the first artists to sign to Jasper Parrot's new management agency when it was formed in 1969, and Harrison Parrott now manages Sakari Oramo.

Even in the early days Jasper Parrott specialised in 'package deals', which resulted in Previn recording with other artists managed by him including Vladimir Ashkenazy and Christina Ortiz.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose -
Anonymous said…
A small detail - Robert Giroux did not co-found what began as simply Farrar, Strauss; he joined the firm after it had been in existence for some time.
Pliable said…
Thanks James, my error and I have corrected the wording.

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