Dramatic Vocalise Database

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958)

Riders to the Sea (1937)

In 1925, the same year as the premiere of Flos Campi, Vaughan Williams began to sketch his miniature operatic masterpiece Riders to the Sea. Although completed in 1932, it was first performed in London under Malcolm Sargent at the Royal College of Music on both 30 November and 1 December 1937, five years after its completion.1

Vaughan Williams based his opera on the play Riders to the Sea written by Irish playwright J. M. Synge, and first performed on 25 February 1904 at the Molesworth Hall, Dublin by the Irish National Theater Society. Vaughan Williams did not commission a libretto either to expand or contract Synge’s lines. Instead he set the dialogue almost without alteration; indeed he did not call the work an opera but rather a setting of the play.

A one-act tragedy, Riders to the Sea is based on Synge’s experiences on Inishmaan, the middle of the three Aran Islands that lie at the mouth of Galway Bay off the west coast of Ireland. Like all of Synge’s plays it is noted for capturing the poetic dialogue of rural Ireland. The plot of Vaughan Williams’s setting is as follows:

Synge’s book on the Aran Islands includes a description of keening [caoine] at the graveside (representation of which figures prominently in Vaughan Williams’s score):

Traditional moments for sounding the caoine are (by members of the family) when death first occurs, then (by professional keening women) as the body leaves the house for the last time, and again at the graveside. The caoine is often called a lament, yet although similar, a traditional lament is a more elaborate and personal expression of loss, usually done by the bereaved. It does not have the ritual character of the caoine, nor does it recount the virtues of the deceased.

The first instance of dramatic vocalization, of keening, by offstage wordless women’s chorus occurs as Maurya describes the death of her husband, father-in-law, and six sons. As she sings of her drowned sons Stephen and Shawn the chorus enters.

Vaughan Williams, Riders to the Sea, mm. 430–36 4

A footnote for the above example states the following:

The offstage chorus sings an undulating pattern similar to that found in both Flos Campi and Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé.

After Maurya enumerates her losses she realizes her fate, singing, “They are all gone now, and there isn’t anything more the sea can do to me.” Her heart is now free from worry from the sound of the sea, and the separate onstage women’s chorus “keens” a figure similar to the previous one.

Vaughan Williams, Riders to the Sea, mm. 504–10 6

At the end of her elegy, and the opera, Maurya kneels beside the bier, the cottage door blows open, the roar of the sea is heard, and an offstage wordless soprano, accompanied by the offstage women’s choir, leads the music into quiet extinction.

Vaughan Williams, Riders to the Sea, mm. 622–37 7

The chorus sings the rocking Ravel-like theme representing the sea, and the thematic material of the solo soprano—and the entire score—is permeated by the same motive found in the third of the Five Mystical Songs, the Pastoral Symphony, Flos Campi, and Sir John in Love.

Regarding the opera as a whole, Simon Mundy states:

Hugh Ottaway echoes similar sentiments in his article on Riders to the Sea:

In choosing this one-act play about Aran fisher-folk, Vaughan Williams found an outlet for a theme to which he was to return in the film Scott of the Antarctic: human endurance in the face of the natural elements. The keening of the women in Riders to the Sea becomes the disembodied voices of the polar winds in the cinematic soundtrack.

(Nauman 2009, 177–83)



Riders to the Sea, mm. 422–66

Riders to the Sea, mm. 504–30

Riders to the Sea, mm. 622–37

Maurya’s Elegy (complete)


1 Anonymous, “Academy and College Notes,” Musical Times 78 (1937): 1064.

2 Michael Kennedy, “Riders to the Sea,” in Grove Music Online, ed. Laura Macy, http://www.grovemusic.com (accessed 20 June 2007).

3 John Millington Synge, The Aran Islands, ed. Robin Skelton (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), 37.

4 Ralph Vaughan Williams, Riders to the Sea (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1936, renewed 1964), 42.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid., 50.

7 Ibid., 60.

8 Simon Mundy, liner notes to Riders to the Sea, by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Chandos CHAN 9392, 6.

9 D. Hugh Ottaway, “‘Riders to the Sea,’” Musical Times 93 (1952): 358–59.