||Charles M. Scammon (1825–1911)
||Chor Leoni Men’s Choir (Vancouver, British Columbia)
Text adapted by the composer from Charles M. Scammon’s Marine Mammals of the North-Western Coast of North America (1874), ch. 9, “The Dolphins”, p. 98.
The midnight sea was quite smooth,
And not a breath of wind was stirring.
At first we heard a harsh rustling sound,
As if a heavy squall of wind, accompanied by hail,
Was sweeping over the tranquil sea;
And, as the moon burst through the clouded sky,
We saw a sheet of foam and spray surging toward us.
In a few moments the vessel was surrounded by myriads of white-sided dolphins,
Which, in their playful movements,—
Tumbling, leaping, arching, plunging, lobtailing, finning,
Darting high and falling sidewise, with a spiteful splash and report—
For the space of one hour,
Whitened the sea all around as far as the eye could see,
When they almost instantly disappeared.
In 1874, Charles M. Scammon, captain of the U.S. Revenue Marine, published Marine Mammals of the North-Western Coast of North America, a thick tome documenting his experience as a whaler on the American west coast. Whaling has since come to be regarded, rightfully, as cruel and unsavoury. Yet Scammon's curiosity was such that he made many valuable observations of scientific value, his contributions recognized by marine biologists today. In the chapter on the Pacific white-sided dolphin (which frequents the B.C. coast), Scammon describes a stunning encounter on the open sea between his ship and a large group of dolphins. The captain's words speak simply and eloquently, tracing an attractive musical arc, like a wave that surges excitedly, then recedes.
I adapted Scammon's vivid prose into a sea ballad in which the sailors collectively recount the striking event they experienced. This explains the music’s frequent shifts in mood, tempo, and character. Varied repetition of phrases, meanwhile, suggests groups of sailors competing to narrate the story, repeating the same thing but each time embellished.
I was commissioned to compose The Midnight Sea after being named a finalist in Vancouver's Chor Leoni Men’s Choir C/4 Canadian Choral Composition Competition (2020). I am immensely grateful to the choir’s artistic director, Erick Lichte, to whom the work is dedicated, for his valuable criticism of the manuscript. —R.R.
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