• John Joubert
  • Gong-Tormented Sea (1981)

  • Novello & Co Ltd (World)

Commissioned by the Feeney Trust

Choral Symphony

  • 3(2pic)3(ca)3(bcl)3(cbn)/4331/timp.4perc/hp/str
  • SATB
  • baritone
  • 38 min
  • Roy Campbell, Walt Whitman, W.B. Yeats
  • English

Programme Note

Aboard at a ship's helm (Walt Whitman 1819 - 1892)
Rounding the Cape (Roy Campbell 1902 - 1957)
Byzantium (W. B. Yeats 1865 - 1939)

The first (Walt Whitman) movement of this three-movement choral symphony is for chorus and depicts the beginning of a voyage. Setting out in fog and uncertainty the ship, guided by the warning bell, eventually reaches the safety of the open sea and "speeds away gayly and safe". But Whitman concludes by reminding us of the "ship aboard the ship"; the "ship of the soul, voyaging, voyaging, voyaging". The music is through-composed and is the most overtly descriptive of the three. It is dominated by wave-images, and the 'bracing' intervals of fourths and fifths.

The second (Roy Campbell) movement is for baritone solo and follows the first without a break. The imagery of Campbell's poem derives from his intimate knowledge of Camöens The Lusiads, the sixteenth century Portugese epic which chronicles the adventures of Vasco da Gama in his attempt to discover a route round Africa to India. In the fifth canto of The Lusiads Camöens describes da Gama's encounter with Adamastor, the giant Spirit of the Cape, whom Campbell equates with the spirit of Black Africa, so ruthlessly exploited by the white man ("Across his back, unheeded, we have broken/Whole forests…"), and so soon to reawaken to assert its rights ("And Night, the Negro, murmurs in his sleep"). The brooding, valedictory mood of the poem is reflected in a new motif of major and minor thirds. Towards the end, as land sinks out of sight, muted horns softly play a fragment of African melody, a quotation from my Second Symphony.

The destination of this metaphysical voyage is tenth century Byzantium, a city which had a particular significance for W B Yeats whose poem of that name forms the text of the final and most substantial movement of the three. For Yeats, Byzantium represents a staging-post in the continuing process of transmigration where the spirits of those who have died are purged in preparation for rebirth. But it can also be looked upon as a monument to the durability of great art and therefore a symbol of immortality.

The five stanzas of the poem represent in turn (1) the scene in the Cathedral square at midnight and the sound of the "great Cathedral gong", (2) an encounter with an unpurged spirit ("I call it death-in-life and life-in-death"), (3) the artefacts of a great civilisation ("Miracle, bird or golden handiwork"), (4) a purgatorial dance ("At midnight on the Emperor's pavement") and (5) the conjunction of images of art ("The golden smithies of the Emperor") and transmigratory spirits borne by dolphins across the "gong-tormented sea". Of these stanzas 1, 3 and 5 are for chorus while stanzas 2 and 4 employ the baritone solo.

The music of the finale follows straight on from the end of the second movement. Its principal musical material is supplied by a portion of Byzantine liturgical chant first intone by violins and glockenspiel alternating with the opening phrases of the chorus. The second phrase of the chant melody contains four notes - rising fourths and a descending minor third - which become an independent motif binding together the whole finale. The third (central) stanza is based upon a ground, symbolising the element of artifice or skill inherent in all creative endeavour. As befits a cyclic work dealing with cyclic processes the material of the opening music returns at the end - this time fortissimo - in its original key of E flat - the basic tonality of the whole work

© John Joubert

Aboard at a Ship's Helm

Aboard at a ship's helm,
A young steersman steering with care.

Through fog on a sea-coast dolefully ringing,
An ocean-bell - O a warning bell, rock'd by the waves.

O you give good notice indeed, you bell by the sea-reefs ringing,
Ringing, ringing, to warn the ship from its wreck-place.

For as on the alert O steersman, you mind the loud admonition,
The bows turn, the freighted ship tacking speeds away under her gray sails,
The beautiful and noble ship with all her precious wealth speeds away gayly and safe.

But O the ship, the immortal ship! O ship aboard the ship!
Ship of the body, ship of the soul, voyaging, voyaging, voyaging.

- Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

Rounding the Cape

The low sun whitens on the flying squalls,
Against the cliffs the long grey surge is rolled
Where Adamastor from his marble halls
Threatens the sons of Lusus as of old.

Faint on the glare uptowers the dauntless form,
Into whose shade abysmal as we draw,
Down on our decks, from far above the storm,
Grin the stark ridges of his broken jaw.

Across his back, unheeded, we have broken
Whole forests: heedless of the blood we've spilled,
In thunder still his prophecies are spoken,
In silence, by the centuries, fulfilled.

Farewell, terrific shade! though I go free
Still of the powers of darkness art thou Lord:
I watch the phantom sinking in the sea
Of all that I have hated or adored.

The prow glides smoothly on through seas quiescent:
But where the last point sinks into the deep,
The land lies dark beneath the rising crescent,
And Night, the Negro, murmurs in his sleep.

- Roy Campbell (1902-1957)
By kind permission of Miss Theresa Campbell


The unpurged images of day recede;
The Emperor's drunken soldiery are abed;
Night resonance recedes, night-walker's song
After great cathedral gong;
A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains
All that man is,
All mere complexities,
The fury and the mire of human veins.

Before me floats an image, man or shade,
Shade more than man, more image than a shade;
For Hades' bobbin bound in mummy-cloth
May unwind the winding path;
A mouth that has no moisture and no breath
Breathless mouths may summon;
I hail the superhuman;
I call it death-in-life and life-in-death.

Miracle, bird or golden handiwork,
More miracle than bird or handiwork,
Planted on the star-lite golden bough,
Can like the cocks of Hades crow,
Or, by the moon embittered, scorn aloud
In glory of changeless metal
Common bird or petal
And all complexities of mire or blood.

At midnight on the Emperor's pavement flit
Flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit,
Nor storm disturbs, flames begotten of flame,
Where blood-begotten spirits come
And all complexities of fury leave,
Dying into a dance,
And agony of trance,
An agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve.

Astraddle on the dolphin's mire and blood,
Spirit after spirit! The smithies break the flood.
The golden smithies of the Emperor!
Marbles of the dancing floor
Break bitter furies of complexity,
Those images that yet
Fresh images beget,
That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.

- W.B. Yeats (1865-1939)
From 'Collected Poems' by kind permission of Michael Yeats


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