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Towards the Unknown Region, by Ralph Vaughan Williams

Music / No Comment / August 2, 2010

Continuing today my brief survey of music that featured in a concert by the Somerset Chamber Choir, I focus today on a work by Ralph Vaughan Williams, one of the great composers of the Twentieth Century.

Towards the Unknown Region develops the genre of the extended single movement song for chorus and orchestra popularised by Parry’s Blest Pair of Sirens. Whereas Parry set an ode by Milton that was obviously Christian in character, Vaughan Williams chose a more ambiguous poem by Walt Whitman, whose poetry he would subsequently set in his Sea Symphony.

The idea of a spiritual journey – the passage of the soul from darkness to light – is central to the text and amply reflected in the music.  It begins with a quiet woodwind figure answered by pizzicato lower strings, after which the chorus enters with a hushed question, ‘Darest thou now, O Soul/ Walk out with me toward the Unknown Region…?’ This music is perhaps the easiest in the piece to sing: the dynamic is soft and the harmony straightforward.

Very soon, however, the tonality becomes unsettled and harmonies turn chromatic as we are plunged into spiritual darkness: ‘all is a blank before us’, to quote the poem.

The most tender moment comes in the middle of the work, when a string quartet recalls the opening theme, just before Vaughan Williams begins building  towards the great emotional release at ‘Then we burst forth – we float/In time and space’, after which the tempo surges forward and the organ joins the full orchestra for the exultant final pages.

Towards the Unknown Region is hugely enjoyable  and rewarding to sing. The text and the sentiments behind it, however, tell of a less certain age and perhaps resonate more strongly with our own than Milton’s archaic ode to Voice and Verse.

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