Conducted by Sir Mark Elder, the Radio Filharmonisch Orkest, and Groot Omroepkoor (Netherlands Radio Choir) perform Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Toward the Unknown Region, a setting for chorus and orchestra of a poem by the American poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892), from his collection “Leaves of Grass”. This performance was recorded during an AVROTROS Friday concert on November 10, 2023, at the TivoliVredenburg in Utrecht.
Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Toward the Unknown Region
“Towards the Unknown Region” is a composition by Ralph Vaughan Williams, an influential British composer. This work, written between 1906 and 1907, showcases Vaughan Williams’ early compositional style, marked by a blend of traditional and innovative elements. It is a setting for chorus and orchestra of a poem by Walt Whitman, from his collection “Leaves of Grass.”
The poem itself is a reflection on the journey towards the unknown, both metaphorically and spiritually. It speaks to the human desire to explore and embrace the mysteries of life and the beyond. Vaughan Williams’ setting of this text is notable for its lush orchestration and the way it captures the expansive, exploratory spirit of Whitman’s poetry.
As the 19th century gave way to the 20th, the work of the American poet Walt Whitman seemed to many to capture the essence of the new age, portraying an optimistic vision of a world inspired by human and scientific endeavor and the spirit of adventure. As well as Vaughan Williams, several other British composers – notably Holst and Delius – turned to Whitman’s groundbreaking collection, Leaves of Grass, for inspiration.
The radical, humanistic philosophy of Whitman’s verse held a particular appeal for Vaughan Williams. He had already produced some songs to Whitman texts when in 1903 he began to think about writing something on an altogether larger scale. One of these projects was to become the Sea Symphony, the great choral and orchestral work which, more than any other, put Vaughan Williams firmly on the musical map when it was first performed in 1909.
Two years earlier a much shorter piece to a Whitman text, Towards the Unknown Region, was premiered. At its first performance in Leeds in 1907 it made an immediate impression on the public and the critics and identified Vaughan Williams as a new and important voice in English music. The work’s enduring success stems from its remarkable marriage of music and text, the unmistakable quality of Vaughan Williams’ inspired music perfectly encapsulating Whitman’s noble, humanistic aspirations.
Musically, “Towards the Unknown Region” is characterized by its dramatic contrasts, rich textures, and a sense of unfolding narrative. The composition begins with a sense of introspection and gradually builds to a more passionate and expansive conclusion, mirroring the journey described in the poem. The use of the chorus and orchestra together creates a powerful and emotive sound, with the chorus often carrying the narrative of the text.
This piece is significant in Vaughan Williams’ oeuvre as it marks his emergence as a major figure in British music. It demonstrates his skill in setting English-language texts to music, a trait that would define much of his career. “Towards the Unknown Region” also reflects Vaughan Williams’ interest in and influence by English folk songs and the music of his teacher, Maurice Ravel.
This work is often included in concerts and programs featuring British choral music and has been recorded by various choirs and orchestras. Its appeal lies in its combination of lyrical beauty, emotional depth, and the effective setting of Whitman’s evocative text.
- Toward the Unknown Region (Vaughan Williams, Ralph) on the International Music Score Library Project website
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