About this work
In 1938, William Walton suspended work on his Violin Concerto to compose an anthem to commemorate the wedding of the Honorable Ivor Guest and Lady Mabel Fox-Strangeways, the groom being the son of Walton's close companion, Lady Alice Wimborne. Though usually cataloged with Walton's sacred music, some scholars argue that the nature of the text, which Walton extracted from the sometimes erotic Song of Solomon in the Old Testament, places the piece more comfortably in the secular realm. However, the actual texts utilized are hardly erotic, and certainly suggest the kind of spiritual, transcendent love that presumably would have been celebrated in a church wedding. The words come from the sixth and seventh verses of chapter 8: "Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm: for love is strong as death...Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it."
The music, which is scored for unaccompanied four-part choir, utilizes simple but poignant textural effects in declaiming the text. The opening lines take on a responsorial feel, with a solo tenor intoning each phrase before passing it over to the ensemble. One particularly effective moment comes near the very end, where, on the words "as a seal upon my arm," a solo soprano voice emerges from the ensemble and leaps delicately and dramatically into the upper range. In addition to the skillful execution of voicing and texture, Set Me as a Seal also exhibits a surprising degree of harmonic ambition. Walton utilizes enharmonic voice leading to swerve progressions suddenly into unexpected realms that only retain a faint connection to the home tonality. This renders the reiterations of the short text in ever-changing tones, suggesting the multiple layers of meaning to be found in the verses' metaphors.
Some argue that Walton uses dramatic harmonic effects to an unfavorable extreme in this piece. "One feels that the inspired simplicity which was his brightest facet," complains one biographer, "has been replaced by a sober, calculating efficiency of dubious profitability." Complexity seems precisely Walton's point, however, and the depth of expression found in this work (as compared with some of Walton's more commercial or public works) suggests the sincerity of the composer's gift to his dedicatees.