Sea-Drift for Baritone Solo, Mixed Chorus and Orchestra (Vocal Score with German and English libretto)
(b. Bradford, 29 January 1862 – d. Grez-sur- Loing, 10 June 1934)
For Baritone Solo, Mixed Chorus, and Orchestra
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Sea-Drift is a section of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, from which Delius sets a portion of the first poem: Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking. This is both its title and the first line of its prologue, serving as a metaphor for birth as well as an allusion to the relentless motion of the primordial sea. This combination of ideas about sentient life and the unconsciousness of natural forces is the background to the unfolding drama: a childhood reminiscence of an event that prompted the “soul-awakening” of Whitman as poet. What ignites his creative muse is the child’s realization of the immutability of death, reflected in the anthropomorphized mourning song of a bird, and his realization of the preeminent power of love.
These sentiments appealed so strongly to Delius that, as he went about his setting, “The shape of it was taken out of my hands, so to speak, as I worked, and was bred easily of my particular musical ideas, and the nature and sequence of the particular poetical ideas of Whitman that appealed to me.” 1 It is the story of a pair of mocking-birds come to breed on the shore of Paumanok (an Indian name and Whitman’s preferred nomenclature for Long Island, New York). A young boy (Whitman) watches as the female incubates the eggs and the he-bird forages “to and fro.” As witness, he appears to be able to sense the devotion that the birds, seemingly oblivious to the surrounding elements, feel for each other. Then, suddenly, the female is missing from the nest and is never seen again. The narrator goes on to relate how, for the remainder of the summer, he observes, imagines, and bonds with the apparent grief of the remaining bird even stealing down to the beach at the dead of night. The poet feels the creature’s initial incomprehension at the mate’s absence, an increasing despair as she fails to reappear and, finally, bitter acceptance of loss together with the remembrance of the blissful time spent together.
The reason why this work is regarded as one of Delius’s most successful is because of his ability to express the deeply-felt sentiments of the poem’s narrative at a sustained level of musical intensity. He perfectly captures the tension between human consciousness and the elemental forces of nature. A word needs to be said about some aspects of his setting of the text, as it is one of the more original aspects of the score. Delius might have followed Whitman’s own differentiation by assigning the male-bird’s anthropomorphized thoughts (printed in italics) to the soloist and the narrative voice of the poet (in regular print) to the chorus, or vice versa. But such a straightforward delineation between the two might have resulted in a musical imbalance and not have served his expressive imagination; instead, he divides the roles between choir and soloist, creating an interaction as one then the other carries the narration forward. In addition, at strategic points, he indulges in text-overlapping (different lines sung simultaneously), allowing the resulting loss of clarity to create an impressionistic mélange of sound. He occasionally allows the chorus to echo words of the soloist in a more conventional way.
For Delius, especially at this fruitful stage in his career, the form of the composition is his intrinsic response to the text: “. . .but if asked I should say that it [form] was nothing more than imparting spiritual unity to one’s thought. It is contained in the thought itself, not applied as something that already exists.” 2 We may look for, and indeed find, evidence of musical structure (in the accepted sense of the term), motivic techniques, and tonal relationships suggesting manipulation and craftsmanship, but we will never know to what extent these are the product of the composer’s conscious or subconscious mind. (This is surely true, to an extent, of many composers but especially so in the present case; Delius was most reluctant to discuss his compositional processes.) He claimed to do better, compositionally speaking, when setting a text. If, as Delius did, one eschews traditional formal procedures, then words impose a structure and influence the dimensions of the music. Although this work proceeds seamlessly, it falls into a number of clearly delineated subsections as a result of Whitman’s sectionalizing of the verse.
Delius is without parallel in being able to generate overwhelming climaxes, and, as an example of his mastery of musical paragraphs, we will look at the section beginning at Fig.  (poco piu mosso), leading up to a colossal climax some 75 measures later at Fig. . The poet begins the section by retrospectively narrating how, through intense observation and absorption in the landscape, he imagines he was able to attune completely to the bird’s feelings: “meanings which I of all men know.” Using the overlapping text technique, the chorus has already begun to suggest the therapeutic motion of the waves (“Soothe, soothe, soothe”), which the demented bird rejects. As Whitman’s tone becomes more wildly expressionistic with its image of the moon “heavy with love,” so the music becomes more disturbed. Increasingly agitated, the bird is deluded into thinking he sees his mate off in the distant swell. This fiercely erotic passage culminates with the bird’s insistent pleading of his need to have his mate return (“You must know who I am my love”). Musically, Delius matches and enhances Whitman’s sentiments every step of the way. The poet’s opening explication is threaded by a sinewy strand of triplets spun by the solo violin, the night-time setting is colored by the plucking of the harps (“avoiding the moonbeams”), and there are thematic references to the sea “out in the breakers.” In a shift of key (d/F), the orchestral texture becomes increasingly more “sea-swept” as a response to the ceaseless motion of the tide, characterized by short fragments of rising and cascading eighth-notes. Metrically, the music has progressed from four beats to the measure (¢), to six (3+3) and then nine (3+3+3), Fig. . This device allows free reign to Delius’s favorite use of compound time to express increasing animation, together with urgent thematic fragments and forward thrust. As the orchestration is further augmented, we hear the complex use of motifs and the interjections of the chorus, moving us relentlessly toward an inevitable culmination, yet drawn out to maximum tension by the use of four measures of dynamic contrast (mf-ff) before the final shattering peak, which then quickly subsides.
Delius does not set Whitman’s twenty-two lines of prologue. Instead, he uses the work’s orchestral prelude to set the scene for the drama to follow. Would you guess this is the portrayal of a seascape if the work’s title didn’t already suggest it? Quite possibly, because its mood is conjured up in a number of ways, the interpretation of three distinct elements left to each listener. One might, for example, hear the slowly shifting muted string chords as the surf advancing and receding over the sands, the regular pulsing bass figure recalling the restless thrusting of the tide, the succession of descending woodwind arpeggios portraying the constant lapping of the waves. In case we should be lulled into the sense of an idyllic landscape, the timbre of the cor anglais’ chromatic lines add a note of foreboding at the cadences. But however evocative this impressionistic sound portrait is, it acts as the elemental backdrop to the sentient drama of the birds and boy/poet. Thus, the three elements that make up the prelude recur throughout in whole, in part, or in transformation, with the ambiguous tonality (E major/c# minor) finally resolved only in the very last measures. There are some other compositional features worth remarking upon: the passages in compound time expressing exhilaration and momentum; the use of a triplet motif to portray the bird’s calling; the despair and bereavement conjured up by dolorous appoggiaturas; and the occasional, though not extensive, use of leitmotif. An example of the latter is one including a sixteenth note figure first heard in flute and cor anglais eight measures after Fig. , becoming increasingly pervasive in the score’s closing pages and which may signify “resignation.” It is worth commenting upon how judiciously and effectively Delius uses the large orchestral forces at his disposal. Only at two climaxes does he unleash them fully; indeed, the third trombone and tuba are made to wait until the work is half over before they get to play for the first time. In his judicious use of the extensive orchestral palette he reveals himself a master of orchestration. Delius’s muse is harmony; he seldom writes tune and accompaniment but melodic lines derived from the chord progressions. The setting of the text emerges from the harmony and melody is the result of his expression, not the catalyst for it. The soloist’s line is sometimes angular, not melodic in the usual sense, and it frequently adopts a declamatory character akin to recitative or arioso, appropriate to the narrative role. Similarly, the choral writing is essentially harmonically-derived even though the chromaticism and voice-leading suggest a polyphonic texture. There are some staggered entries, even attempts at imitation, but these never amount to much. Thus, the most startling effects are purely chordal, such as “Shine! Shine! Shine!” at Fig. , and the most poignant section of all is the 26 measures of rich, unaccompanied harmony for the chorus and soloist: “O rising stars” Fig. .
It is not known where, when, or how Delius first became acquainted with Whitman’s poems. It could have been during the latter days of his stay in America in 1886. A number of English composers, principally Ralph Vaughan Williams, were setting Whitman’s poems in the early years of the twentieth century, but it is unlikely that they would have impinged on Delius. It is also known that his wife, Jelka, was very influential in choosing his texts, and he began work on Sea-Drift in 1903, the year they were married. She also translated the text into German. Completed in 1904, the work was first performed in Essen on 24 May 1906 as part of the annual Tonkünstlerfest. Georg Witte conducted, and the baritone soloist was Josef Loritz. A second performance took place in Basel on 2 March 1907 under Hermann Suter. The first English performance was given on 7 October the following year as part of the Sheffield Festival, conducted by Henry Wood with Frederic Austin as soloist. It was given by Thomas Beecham, who subsequently became the work’s principal champion, the following month at Hanley, utilizing the excellent North Staffordshire Choral Society, and repeated in Manchester the next day. It was first heard in London on 3 December, 1908, in the Queen’s Hall, Beecham having imported the Staffordshire choir for the occasion. Reviews of these early performances were mixed, some surprisingly perceptive of the work’s worth, others frankly mystified. Towards the end of his life, musing over his life’s achievements, Delius considered Sea-Drift to be one of his best works.
Roderick L. Sharpe, 2012
1 Fenby, Eric. Delius as I Knew Him. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981, p. 36
2 Ibid, p. 200
For performance material please contact the publisher Universal Edition, Wien. Reprint of a copy from the Musikabteilung der
Leipziger Städtischen Bibliotheken, Leipzig.