I wonder if anyone else in the choir finds Walt Witman's words in the Sea Symphony as obscure as I do. Sometimes I think the Rachmaninov Vespers were hardly less intelligible. A few weeks ago I happened to be sitting next to my learned friend Tony Tenore and mentioned my difficulty while Andrew was rehearsing the altos. My eyes were opened as he explained some of the strokes of genius in this amazing work.
Take, for example, the very opening. We're all familiar with the tonal ambiguity of Bach's inspired D# in the second bar of the B Minor Mass. Second only to this, comes the start of the Sea Symphony: "Behold the Sea itself", with the fickle yet awesome power of the briney main evoked by the rich irony of the word "sea" set to a chord of D.
Turning to the other end of the score, I had long puzzled over the last section: "Away O Soul! hoist the anchor!" Could the poet have been using a voyage by sea as a metaphor for the voyage of the human soul into eternity? Tony put me straight. One day, as a penniless student, Whitman was on his way home from the supermarket with a single item: some butter to spread on a few dry crusts, being the only victuals remaining in his larder. It was pouring with rain but poetry was pouring from his fevered brain in no lesser abundance as he hopped and skipped around or through the puddles. His shoes, meanwhile, were in a state no more desirable than his larder, the loose soles flapping and splashing on the path. Suddenly, as he bounded over an extra large puddle, one of his soles broke free and flew over a hedge. At the same moment, he dropped the butter in the puddle. This was when the immortal line came to him "Away O sole! Hoist instantly the Anchor (butter)". But inspiration was not yet exhausted. As he watched his sole disappear into the distance and splash down in a seriously flooded field, the lyric genius continued, "Sail forth - steer for the deep waters only."
Finally, Tony pulled out a gem: an additional unpublished section of Walt Whitman's poem, allegedly in Whitman's own hand, and scribbled on the back of a handbill for the St Matthew Passion, 5th April 2003. Here it is.
Behold, the seaweed itself!
Myriad, myiad undulating waves of brown and green,
Curling, swirling, undulating, osculating the steel bow,
As it tracks beneath the emulous frolicsome waves.
Away O sardine tin of taciturn men!
Down periscope and plunge to the deep waters only!
Vent the boyancy tanks - Action stations - Dive!
Blithely they glide into Neptune's nautical neighbourhood,
Prying, eyeing, dividing the brine,
Murky, darker and darker this watery universe.
Unspeakable low processions of countless strange creatures,
Swarms flashing silver, or waving their tentacles in curves.
All fish, all jellyfish, though they be ever so different,
All distances of plaice, however wide,
All whales and plankton, all identities of fish that have existed or may exist,
Stranger than a hydrangea in a manger,
Linked by time to the trilobite, O Ceolocanth, father of this vast disimilituded,
United by H2O.
Deeper, deeper into the womb of creation, indomitable place of life
Gurgling, brave submariners go!
Down to the gardens of coral descending, wandering, yearning, exploring,
Questioning the formless expanse and depths of briny main.
tried to persuade me that Witman's mother had been abducted by aliens
from a Vogon space ship, but I rather suspect the abduction victim might actually have been
Tony's own mother.
©Philip Le Riche, 2005
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