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Sea Songs by Ralph Vaughan Williams is a combination of three sea shanties: “Princess Royal,” “Admiral Benbow,” and “Portsmouth.” Although it uses the tunes of these shanties, it is not entirely in a shanty style. Shanties were songs that were sung on sea vessels to keep sailors entertained while they work, so by arranging them for military band, Vaughan Williams moves away from the traditional shanty genre and combines it with classical music.

Characteristics that remain from the shanty genre include repetition and call-and-response. Shanties were oftentimes sung out by a soloist and then the rest of the group would repeat it or sing the chorus. This is similar to a military cadence which follows a similar format and may have influenced Vaughan Williams’s choice to originally write the piece for military band.

In many sections of Sea Songs, an instrument plays a little melody and then a larger section repeats it. As the call-and-response is used throughout the piece, it gets more and more complex, evolving from exact repetition to the response being a variation of the original. These variations, rather than exact repetition, reveal the influence of the classical style on the shanties in this piece.

Moving away from the shanty style, Vaughan Williams uses many elements of the classical genre. He develops through repetition, but nearly every repetition is different, or varied, in some way. Some are the exact same melody and accompaniment in different voices, such as the first two repetitions of the “Princess Royal” theme played first by flutes, followed by many sections repeating the same theme. Other repetitions are really variations in which the same piece of material is repeated with changes, whether or not it is in the same voice part. An example of this appears in the first and third iteration of the “Portsmouth” theme. In some of the repetitions of themes, the melody does not change but the harmony does which adds some variation and still maintains continuity, such as in the first and second repetitions of the “Portsmouth” theme. The changes here in the harmony introduce differences from the original theme and lead to the melodic changes later in the piece.

To reflect the Sea Shanty genre, each theme is repeated, in its exact form, more often than in a typical piece. For this reason, Vaughan Williams uses several different forms of harmony. Counterpoint is used in the first “Admiral Benbow” theme, filling spaces in the melody with its own movement. In the first “Princess Royal” theme, harmonic harmony is used in the low woodwinds who have a constantly moving bass line that solely maintains chords, rather than interacting with the melody.

Sea Songs has a very rough A B A format; “Princess Royal” and “Admiral Benbow” A section and are each repeated numerous times. “Portsmouth” is the B section and is a little more flowing and relaxed in contrast to the fanfare-like beginning. At the end of the B section, a DC al Fine takes the piece back to the beginning to repeat the A section exactly. Within the A section, there is a repeat with first and second endings that end with imperfect authentic cadences and perfect authentic cadences, respectively, and give the feeling of wanting to go on, and closure, respectively. Slightly different dynamics in the true fine give the piece a sense closure by making the end louder and more conclusive in the fanfare style.

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