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A New Vaughan Williams Work Sets Sail

Martin Yates introduces his new realisation and orchestration of The Steersman, now available for the first time:

I am always profoundly moved by the honesty and quiet intensity of Vaughan Williams’s music. His ability to inspire reflections on life without ever resorting to emotional tricks – in short, his sincerity – is something that indicates an important aspect of his genius. I found these qualities in The Steersman, a draft setting of Walt Whitman’s poem ‘Aboard at a Ship’s Helm’, which forms part of the British Library’s extensive collection of manuscripts relating to the composition of A Sea Symphony. Sketched in vocal score dated 17 August 1906, and conceived of as the fourth of five projected movements at a time when the composer was still uncertain about the symphony’s structure, The Steersman forms part of a considerable body of music discarded over the work’s seven years’ gestation period. The vocal score is without indications of tempi, orchestration or dynamics, the exception being one bar marked with a crescendo and diminuendo. However, there is to my mind something about the way it was written down that suggests his possible intentions. Is it the use of repeating motifs, the alternating chord patterns, or the rising phrases to the orchestral climax? Or is it simply that one has lived with his music for so long that this language feels intuitively known?

Whatever the explanation, once the Vaughan Williams Charitable Trust had given permission for the draft to be realised and orchestrated, I felt that I was inhabiting a sound-world that was as inspiring as it was moving. The word-setting had a simplicity akin to folk song, with every syllable audible; and the introduction of atmospheric female voices at the conclusion prefigured not only the composer’s own slightly later use of a women’s choir in Willow-Wood, but also that of Holst’s Neptune from The Planets. The dating of The Steersman, however, 16 months before his intensive study with Ravel from December 1907 to February 1908, and three years before the completion of A Sea Symphony in 1909, gave me pause for thought. Should the orchestration be in the style Vaughan Williams pursued after his Ravel studies, emphasising points of colour, or be in the more traditional manner of his scoring before his time in Paris? The music is so lightly textured and transparent that there really was no option but to utilise the post-Ravel sound. For this, I used similar forces as those in A Sea Symphony, omitting piccolo, E flat clarinet and organ, and with much reduced percussion and a single harp. This was not in order that The Steersman might ever be subsumed into the larger work – at an important stage in the symphony’s composition Vaughan Williams had clearly rejected such a possibility – but because the weight of orchestral sound must have been in the composer’s mind whilst he was writing this movement.

There were a dozen or so bars in the sketch that Vaughan Williams had crossed out. I chose to include them because harmonically and musically what he had originally written made sense. And the hushed conclusion, where I imagined the ship’s disappearing into the mist, is a long-held note given to the solo violin. Apart from the practicalities of anything other than a stringed instrument sustaining such an ethereal ending, this sound seemed right, and within the parameters of Vaughan Williams’s frequent use of the violin as an orchestral soloist.

As with other works from this time which were originally either unfinished or suppressed, The Future and The Garden of Proserpine for example, The Steersman further extends our appreciation of the composer at a key point in his creative development. And although we are unlikely ever to know why Vaughan Williams abandoned the score midway through his own extended voyage of discovery towards the definitive version of A Sea Symphony, this was not because of its being inferior music: of that I have no doubt.

Martin Yates

Martin Yates conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in the premiere recording of The Steersman due to be released on the Dutton label.

Full score and parts are available for rental (ref. HL458) and the vocal score is available for sale (ref. D115).


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