The Secret of the Sea


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The Story

Craig Hella Johnson and KI Concerts commissioned The Secret of the Sea (2018), for choir, piano, percussion, and string quintet, which had its premiere at the Sydney Opera House in Australia on July 17, 2018. The subject of the piece was inspired by this venue’s proximity to the sea, and to compose it, Runestad searched for texts related to the sea in his own poetry collection and beyond. The resulting libretto incorporates texts by Walt Whitman, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), and the Inuit shaman Uvavnuk, and takes listeners on a dramatic musical journey. “This journey of the human spirit,” the composer writes, “questions the meaning of existence while evoking the sights and sounds of the sea.”

Part I, “The Unbounded Sea,” pairs texts by Whitman and Longfellow: Whitman’s words express the unbridled joy of embarking on an ocean voyage, while Longfellow introduces the central image and title of the work: “My soul is full of longing for the secret of the sea.” In Part II, “Crash On Crash,” H.D.’s agitated language launches us into a “raging” and “furious” sea that Runestad matches with equally stormy music. Finally, Part III, “The Light that Fills the World,” presents a cultural story that expresses Inuit peoples’ intimate relationship to the sea. One evening, upon leaving her home, the Iglulik shaman Uvavnuk witnessed light come down from the sky. It entered into her and, inspired, she began to sing a song about the sea, of which the text that concludes The Secret of the Sea is a rough translation. Runestad’s music is harmonically centered around the Lydian mode—- hum the Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Si-Do scale starting on Fa—as well as the whole tone scale, whose expansive intervals evoke the majesty of the sea, and may bring to mind Claude Debussy’s La Mer.

Program note by by Leah G. Weinberg, Ph.D.
Please credit this writer in all uses of this program note.

SATB with divisi
Percussion (2 players)
String Quintet or String Quartet 2.1.1



Commissioned by Craig Hella Johnson and KI Concerts.

July 17, 2018 at the Sydney Opera House in Australia. Craig Hella Johnson, conductor.


The Secret of the Sea
Texts edited and adapted by the composer.

I. The Unbounded Sea

Lo, the unbounded sea!
On its breast a ship starting, spreading all sails,
the pennant is flying aloft as it speeds,
below emulous waves press forward,
they surround the ship with shining curving motions and foam.
- Walt Whitman

My soul is full of longing
for the secret of the sea.
- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

II. Crash On Crash

Crash on crash of the sea,
raging against the world,
furious, the deep roar hailing you,
the very gods,
rearing their mighty length
on the unharvested sea.
- H.D. (Hilda Doolittle)

III. The Light that Fills the World

The great sea
moves me, sets me free.
The winds of the earth
carry me away,
and my soul is filled with joy.

When I drifted out
and thought myself in danger,
my fears captured me —
all the things I had to get and to reach.

but there is only one great thing,
the only thing:
to live to see the light that fills the world.

- Uvavnuk, Iglulik Eskimo



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