The first of the Whitman settings, To the Soul, utilises the text made famous in Vaughan Williams’s ‘Song for Chorus and Orchestra’, Toward the Unknown Region, commissioned by the Leeds Festival (under Stanford’s aegis) in 1907, raising the question as to whether Stanford was prompted by Vaughan Williams’s choice of text or whether it was coincidence. The mood of the song, with its muscular harmonic language and broad architectural strokes, is one of nobility and courage in the face of the unknown region of death and triumphant oblivion beyond.
Joy, shipmate, joy!, famous as the fourth of Delius’s Songs of Farewell, deploys and develops the metaphor of a ship, freeing itself joyously from its long anchorage and leaping swiftly from the shore into the unknown expanse of the great sea. Whitman’s nautical imagery is reflected in Stanford’s wave-like accompanimental contours and the shipmate’s cry, though it is perhaps the ship’s serene disappearance over the horizon together with the singer’s ‘distant’ exultation that sticks in the mind.
In 1913 Stanford used the material of To the Soul and Joy, shipmate, joy! to create a single choral movement titled Song of the Soul, Op 97b. This was offered to Professor Horatio Parker (of Yale University), President of the Litchfield County Choral Union for their 1915 Festival, though in the end Stanford agreed instead to orchestrate To the Soul and the second Whitman song, Tears, for large forces.
from notes by Jeremy Dibble © 2000
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