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James Lowe, conductor
Dr. Meg Stohlmann, chorale director
Spokane Symphony Chorale
Malinda Wagstaff, soprano
Charles Robert Stephens, baritone

Joined by the Spokane Symphony Chorale, we steer for deep waters with Vaughan Williams’ A Sea Symphony. Hovhaness weaves whale song recordings with the orchestra to capture the epic majesty of our planet’s largest creatures, performed with beautiful video footage in the background to make what you hear come alive.

Alan Hovhaness
And God Created Great Whales, Op.229, No. 1
Ralph Vaughan Williams
Symphony No. 1, A Sea Symphony


Masterworks & Mimosas: Get a behind-the-scenes look at how the symphony perfects their work in the final moments with James at the dress rehearsal. Masterworks & Mimosas lets you be a part of the inner workings of the orchestra while enjoying a mimosas, coffee, and gourmet pastries. Join us at 10am on Saturday, November 4th.

LoweDown: On Thursday, November 2 at Noon, Music Director James Lowe gives you the “LoweDown” on the music. It’s a free, fascinating, and light-hearted talk about the music. Held at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture (MAC).

Alan Hovhaness
And God Created Great Whales, Op. 229 No. 1

Composer: born March 8, 1911, Somerville, MA; died June 21, 2000, Seattle

Work composed: 1970. Commissioned by André Kostelanetz and the New York Philharmonic

World premiere: André Kostelanetz led the New York Philharmonic on June 11, 1970, in New York City

Instrumentation: recorded humpback, bowhead, and orca whale songs, piccolo, 2 flutes. 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, chimes, glockenspiel, gone, tam-tam, vibraphone, 2 harps, and strings

Estimated duration: 12.5 minutes

“I always feel about writing music that if it does something for one person, it’s worth it.” – Alan Hovhaness

In 1943, Alan Hovhaness won a scholarship to study music at Tanglewood, the Berkshire Music Institute’s summer festival, in western Massachusetts. At that time, the 32-year-old composer was immersed in classical Indian music, which fed his growing interest in Indian mysticism and meditation practices. Hovhaness’ music reflected these affinities, which were summarily ridiculed by both Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein, who were also at Tanglewood that summer. Infuriated by their reaction, Hovhaness vowed not to abandon his own musical convictions, and turned away from the prevailing Western musical norms he had absorbed as a composition student. From that moment forward, Hovhaness embarked on a particularly American creative journey, forging ahead into unexplored musical and spiritual territory without regard for what was musically fashionable at any given moment.

Had he been able to see 30 years into the future, Hovhaness would have perhaps been comforted by the realization that he was not an eccentric musical crank; he was merely ahead of his time. In the interim, he continued to explore, revere, and incorporate spiritual practices from around the world into his music, to which he added his veneration of the natural world. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, a number of other composers had begun incorporating environmental ideas and non-Western musical styles into their own work (Lou Harrison’s compositions for Javanese gamelan with Western orchestral instruments, and George Crumb’s 1971 trio Vox Balaenae – Voice of the Whale – come to mind).

In 1970, the New York Philharmonic’s conductor André Kostelanetz, already a fan of Hovhaness’ music, commissioned a new work from the composer. In a 1985 interview, Hovhaness recalled, “[Kostelanetz] always sent me a telegram or something about the success he had here and there with my music … and bringing things my way.” Hovhaness’ And God Created Great Whales – the title comes from Genesis – resulted. Hovhaness featured fragments of songs of humpback whales, which had been collected and recorded by biologist Roger Payne in 1967 (Payne’s recordings, Songs of the Humpback Whale, were released commercially on LP in August 1970, and became a worldwide bestseller). Inspired by the whales’ vocalizations, Hovhaness repurposed a pentatonic (five-note) theme from one of his own operas as the primary melody. “I had a very strong idea and I showed that to Kostelanetz,” Hovhaness remembered, “and he said, ‘But that idea is too Oriental. The whales don’t sing Oriental music.’ But they do. That’s the whole thing, they really do!”

In the liner notes for a recording of And God Created Great Whales, Hovhaness wrote, “Free rhythmless vibrational passages, each string player playing independently, suggest waves in the vast ocean. Undersea mountains rise and fall in horns, trombones, and tuba. Music of the whales also rises and falls like mountain ranges. Song of a whale emerges like a great mythical sea bird. Man does not exist, has not yet been born …”

Ralph Vaughan Williams
A Sea Symphony

Composer: born October 12, 1872, Down Ampney, England; died August 26, 1958, London

Work composed: 1903-09

World premiere: Vaughan Williams conducted the first performance on his 38th birthday, October 12, 1910, at the Leeds Festival.

Instrumentation: Solo soprano, solo baritone, SATB chorus, 3 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, triangle, organ, 2 harps, and strings

Estimated duration: 70 minutes

“This is big stuff – with some impertinences as well as noble moments” – Hubert Parry, Vaughan Williams’ composition teacher, on A Sea Symphony

In the early 1890s, Ralph Vaughan Williams discovered a kindred spirit in Walt Whitman, particularly the American poet’s groundbreaking work, Leaves of Grass. Both men shared significant beliefs, including a spirituality that rejected the traditional Christian view of God; an approach to creative productivity that embraced new ideas and untried concepts; and profound love – bordering on worship – of nature. This mutuality of spirit seemed to augur the inevitability of Vaughan Williams setting Whitman’s words to music.

Vaughan Williams began working on A Sea Symphony, his first symphony of nine, in 1903, and completed it six years later. During this period, Vaughan Williams was also editing the Anglican hymnal, a mammoth task that took more than two years to complete. As he worked on the hymnal, Vaughan Williams was also developing an interest in the English musical tradition, and knew the best examples lay in the wealth of English folk and religious music. Hubert Parry’s comment about “some impertinences” in A Sea Symphony is a reference to his erstwhile student’s inclusion of such materials, from folk songs to sea shanties and hymns. Vaughan Williams also quoted a fragment he particularly liked from Edward Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius.

Two central components of A Sea Symphony distinguish it not only from earlier symphonies generally, but also from those symphonies – Beethoven’s Ninth and Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony, for example – that feature a chorus. These earlier choral symphonies present the choir as a special addition to the instrumental texture, usually by spotlighting it in a particular movement. In Vaughan Williams’ conception of A Sea Symphony, the chorus is as essential as the strings, and declaims Whitman’s poetry in all four movements. Centering choral music turned out to be a lifelong priority for Vaughan Williams, who made good use of the hundreds of years of English choral tradition that preceded him. He wrote choral music throughout his life and extolled the basic humanity inherent in its makeup; in 1951, Vaughan Williams observed, in a program note he wrote for a performance of A Sea Symphony, “The philosophy of choral singing is comprised in the mathematical formula 2 + 2 = 40.”

Vaughan Williams also believed in the importance of musicmaking for everyone, ordinary people as well as professional musicians, and often wrote works intended for enthusiastic amateurs. One singer famously commented, “[Vaughan Williams] draws out of you what you know isn’t there.”

Vaughan Williams wrote the following notes for A Sea Symphony’s first performance in London:

“The first sketches for this work (namely, parts of the Scherzo and slow movement) were made in 1903, and it was gradually worked out during the next seven years … There are two main musical themes which run through the four movements: First, the harmonic progression to which the opening words for the chorus are sung. Second, a melodic phrase first heard at the words ‘and on its limitless heaving breast, the ships’. The plan of the work is symphonic rather than narrative or dramatic, and this may be held to justify the frequent repetition of important words and phrases which occur in the poem. The words as well as the music are thus treated symphonically. It is also noticeable that the orchestra has an equal share with the chorus and soloists in carrying out the musical ideas.”

“A Song for All Seas, All Ships” opens with the choir declaiming, “Behold the sea itself! And on its limitless, heaving breast, the ships,” with all the orchestral forces, including the organ, playing full force. In Whitman’s words, the ocean and the men who sail her are presented as inextricably linked – whether in the daily tasks aboard ship, or combatting deadly storms. The sea is alive, and sailing upon it is a way of living unlike any other. The baritone and soprano soloists proclaim recitativo-like passages, while the chorus emphasizes particular words through repetition, as in an opera aria.

“On the Beach at Night, Alone,” recalls the intimate, otherworldly “night music” of Mahler. In hushed undertones, the baritone, chorus, and orchestra ponder the infinity of the universe: “On the beach at night alone, As the old mother sways her to and fro, singing her husky song, As I watch the bright stars shining – I think a thought of the clef of the universes, and of the future.” The altos murmur a lullaby in the voice of the ocean, which expands beyond its literal boundaries to embody an all-encompassing presence. The chorus joyfully expresses Whitman’s realization that “This vast similitude spans them, and always has spann’d, and shall forever span them, and compactly hold them, and enclose them.”

The brief, sparkling “After the Sea-Ship” captures the wash of spray and seafoam as a ship cuts smartly through the water, leaving a murmurous wake behind. Vaughan Williams’ orchestration and unsettled harmonies evoke the excitement of riding the waves and the freedom of flying across the ocean ahead of a strong wind.

In the closing movement, “The Explorers,” Vaughan Williams and Whitman expand their contemplation of the sea to include the entire globe. Whitman begins by praising the curve of the Earth: “O, vast Rondure, swimming in space! Cover’d all over with visible power and beauty!” Together Vaughan Williams and Whitman reflect on “the vast terraqueous globe, given, and giving all.” In this movement, the spiritual dimension of such contemplations emerge, revealing each man’s belief in nature as a sacred realm. The music features brass chorales intoning hymn-like passages, and, mirroring the transcendent text, solemnly joyful, awe-filled expressions of wonder, sung in gratitude to a divine presence beyond human comprehension: “Bear me, indeed, as through the regions infinite, Whose air I breathe, whose ripples hear—lave me all over, Bathe me, O God, in thee, mounting to thee, I and my soul to range in range of thee.”

© Elizabeth Schwartz

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