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Toward the Unknown Region

First line:
Darest thou now O soul
author of text

A hundred years on, now that Whitman’s ideals of democracy and individualism have become so integral a part of modern thought, it is hard for us to appreciate how enormously liberating was the impact of Leaves of Grass on the free-thinking young of the late Victorian generation—notably Delius, Holst and of course Vaughan Williams. Shortly before he died VW told Michael Kennedy, ‘I’ve never got over [Whitman], I’m glad to say …’, and he had good reason not to have, since two of the most outstanding successes of his early career as a composer were Whitman settings—Toward the Unknown Region (probably completed in 1906, first performed at the Leeds Festival of 1907, the composer conducting) and the mighty Sea Symphony of 1909.

Toward the Unknown Region was VW’s first major choral piece (he calls it a ‘Song’ for chorus and orchestra) and despite its intermittent Wagnerian echoes (Wagner was an influence that he did want to get over, and it took him quite a time to do so) its obvious inspirational qualities—not to mention its technical savoir faire in terms of the handling of massed voices—made it a success from the first. Stanford (who conducted the first London performance in 1907) and Elgar are important models, but most of all the Parry of Blest Pair of Sirens—Parry who urged VW to write choral music ‘as befits an Englishman and democrat’. The spirit of adventure is always keen in Vaughan Williams; but after the great outburst at ‘Nor any bounds bounding us’ the words seem buoyed up on, bowled on by, wave after wave of musical excitement and elation. The great choreographer Agnes de Mille, describing an altogether different medium, nonetheless invoked an emotion which distils the spirit of Toward the Unknown Region to perfection: ‘To take the air. To challenge space. To move into space with patterns of shining splendour. To be at once stronger and freer than at any other time in life. To lift up the heart …’

Toward the Unknown Region was the work of a comparatively young man. But the music, no less than the text, has a transcendent timelessness that relates to any, and every, period in life.

from notes by Christopher Palmer © 1993


Vaughan Williams: Choral works
CDS44321/4Boxed set (at a special price) — Download only
Vaughan Williams: Dona nobis pacem & other works
CDA66655Archive Service


Track 10 on CDA66655 [12'44] Archive Service
Track 10 on CDS44321/4 CD2 [12'44] Boxed set (at a special price) — Download only

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