Dayton Philharmonic interprets Williams’ Sea Symphony and DeBussy’s La Mer

The Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Maestro Neal Gittleman, will take the audience on a sea-faring musical adventure.

By Pat Suarez

The ocean: it is the largest collective organism on the planet, with an ecosystem that affects every living creature. It is a swirling mass that influences weather and provides life to millions of exotic creatures. Millennia passed before humans navigated it successfully; we still have not mastered it, nor will we ever. In Redondo Beach, CA, at night, stand on the bluff that joins the bright lights of the city to the pure blackness of the Pacific Ocean. Gaze westward intently and observe the absolute darkness, 8,000 miles ahead of you, where the sky and the water are seamless. After a while, your mind plays tricks and you almost are convinced that eerie shapes are materializing before you. On Mar. 16 and 17, Neal Gittleman, Artistic Director and Conductor of the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra, will lead his forces, including the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra Chorus, soprano Angela Mortellaro and baritone Grant Youngblood, in two works celebrating the wonder that is the sea.

Claude Debussy was one of the pillars of musical French Impressionism, which began its life in the early 1880s, but became a named movement in 1890. The intent of musical impressionism was to suggest moods and feelings through the use of unresolved chords and unusual scales. Debussy described the experience as “a sense of detached observation,” as if one held gauze to one’s eyes while looking at a field or beach, while clearing one’s head of all subjective thought. Debussy wrote for soloists, chamber groups, voice, and opera, but his most popular compositions were the six that he wrote for orchestra. The fifth was “La Mer,” penned between 1903 and 1905, which opens the DPO program. Debussy referred to the work’s three movements as “sketches” to neutralize any notion that “La Mer” was a symphony. The first sketch, “From dawn to noon on the sea,” evokes both anticipation (what could be out there?) and motion (will our journey be calm or dangerous?), but offers optimism at its conclusion. The second sketch, “Play of the Waves,” is what the title suggests—a very busy, but benign, set of waves. The final sketch, “Dialogue of the wind and the sea,” piles on the anticipation, one of the hallmarks of Impressionism. Here are dread, beauty, fear, and a joyous conclusion to our voyage, all packed into about eight minutes.

Ralph (pronounced “rafe”, with a long ‘a’ and silent ‘e’) Vaughan-Williams composed for more than fifty years, employing luxurious harmonies for both orchestra and voice. Listen to the opening passages of his “The Pilgrim’s Progress” and you get an idea of his gifts; listen to the final eight minutes and you’ll feel capable of flight. Vaughan-Williams’s first symphony, “A Sea Symphony,” which closes this DPO concert, helped him polish his skills. He wrote nine symphonies, waiting until the age of nearly forty to publish his “Sea” symphony.

“A Sea Symphony,” begun the same year Debussy began “La Mer,” is in four movements, the first of which is “A Song for All Seas, All Ships.” After a brass fanfare, the chorus enters (“Behold the sea itself”) and is followed by swirls in the strings and winds. Close your eyes during this movement and you’ll see bright blue skies, the ups and downs of swells, and the splash of salt water at your feet.

“On the Beach at Night, Alone,” the second movement, is one of the most evocative movements in all music. Vaughan-Williams effectively imagines the inky, moonless night, the waves pushing, reaching to one’s feet, then receding.

The third movement, “Scherzo: The Waves,” returns us to our ship of the imagination. Now, however, our sea is more active, with higher swells and “whistling” winds. Take a Dramamine® now! The orchestra and chorus are as boisterous as the sea itself.

The final movement, “The Explorers,” opens with a gorgeous, reassuring, almost church-like calm, and contains some of this symphony’s most beautiful melodies. Vaughan-Williams returns to the mood of the opening movement, but maintaining the pastoral mood of the beginning of the movement. “A Sea Symphony” closes quietly (“O farther sail”), in a meditative disposition.

Vaughan-Williams chose American Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” for his text. Whitman was hardly a household name in England in 1910, but Vaughan-Williams had read the book of poems and was endeared to Whitman’s ability to delve deeply into the questions about human existence. Vaughan-Williams also appreciated Whitman’s use of free form, unchained from the traditional rules of poetry. One of the reasons why this symphony is so powerful is that Vaughan-Williams understood Whitman to the extent that Vaughan-Williams’s music is a spot-on match to the dialogue.

This symphony is likely unfamiliar to some of those who will attend the concerts, so Maestro Gittleman will usher in a new experience and introduction to one of the last century’s composing giants.

A Sea Symphony and La Mer will be performed by the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus on Mar. 16 and 17 at The Schuster Center, 1 West 2nd St., Dayton. Show times are 8 p.m. For tickets or more information, visit or call 888-228-3630.

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Pat Suarez has been involved with a wide variety of music for nearly five decades. He has hosted music programming on FM radio and produced and hosted the radio broadcasts of two symphony orchestras. His articles about music have been published extensively in print and online. Reach him at

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