The Seas of God

The Seas of God was commissioned by the Choral Society of Greensboro for the 500th Anniversary of Columbus’ first voyage to the Americas, and it received its premiere by that organization on October 31, 1992, conducted by William Carroll.

Written for chorus and orchestra, The Seas of God takes as its text excerpts from Walt Whitman’s last major poem, “Passage to India” (1871), from Leaves of Grass. In this remarkable poem Whitman reflects on the powerful impulses which have moved the earth’s peoples toward discovering their unity, an emphasis that provides a broad context not only for Columbus’ voyages but also for the continuing evolution of our outlook which the explorations of our own time have brought to us with the astronauts’ photographs of the blue planet.

During the quincentennial year our society engaged in a heated debate about the merits and demerits of the Columbus voyages; Whitman, however, over a century ago, was characteristically far ahead of us, focusing on the more significant issue, the multi-millenial task of the transformation of the globe and its peoples into one. His image of the “vast Rondure swimming in space” is an astonishing leap of poetic insight a century before the Apollo moon flights, and his recognition of the need for us to “farther, farther sail” makes us aware that the process of growth toward true global unity, in which Columbus and his fellow explorers played such key early roles, is but only begun.

I wanted The Seas of God to capture the exhilaration of charting the unknown, as well as to portray something of the tragic figure of Columbus himself. The work opens with the chorus proclaiming the central motive of the work with the words, “Passage to India.” The orchestral introduction which follows sets up a musical metaphor for Columbus’ goal of sailing around the world: we are taken dizzyingly through a succession of keys, returning circumferentially to the tonal center from which we had started (the note A), rather than through traditional diatonic means. The middle section of the work turns its attention to Columbus, singing of his fame as well as his calamities. But the music of exploration returns, transformed now as the chorus sings of passage to “more than India.” The work ends with the stirring lines with which Whitman exhorts us to the continuing task of personal and universal exploration, “O farther, farther sail! Are they not all the seas of God?”

Program Notes by Samuel Jones