It is most curious to me that I have barely posted any RVW on this blog since it's inception (I have contemplated over the years having a blog dedicated exclusively to the life and music of Vaughan Williams). Vaughan Williams is one of my top 3 composers of all time, and indeed his music is nothing less than a reason to live, a reason to celebrate all that is good. The amount of overwhelming beauty that this man contributed to the world through sound-well, it's unlike anything else, and I believe it speaks equally to the people and about all people, it often attempts to unveil the mysteries of humanity, the joyous and the painful, the inexplicable-through the eyes, mind, heart and soul of one of the most tender and musically/emotionally brilliant composers who ever lived. I cannot fathom 20th century music without his genius and graceful pen.
Vaughan Williams was just thirty when he composed "The Solent" in 1902 and eighty when he completed the "Prelude on an Old Carol Tune" in 1952. Over this astonishing period, a time of two World Wars and unprecedented social, economic and political change, Vaughan Williams's music remained broadly consistent. Of course, he grew in confidence and technical accomplishment and both folk song and the period of study with Ravel in early 1908 added color and a fresh texture to his music. What was remarkable, however, was the consistency of style-from the visionary melody that opens The Solent to the richly harmonized setting of the carol "On Christmas Night the Joy-Bells Ring" of 1952-the music is recognizably Vaughan Williams.
Incidentally, Albion Records is the recording entity of the RVW society, and they have released several unheard, world-premiere recordings. All of them are priceless, as you will hear/see after listening to this!
Over this fifty years, another feature remains constant and that is Vaughan Williams' preoccupation with life as a spiritual and personal journey, one fraught with danger and often ending in tragedy, but showing noble and courageous human endeavour in the face of fate and adversity as we progress towards "the Unknown Region". This focus, sometimes using the sea as a metaphor for the perils of the journey, is shown in his lifelong obsession with Bunyan's Christian as he journeys toward the Celestial City in The Pilgrim's Progress. Walt Whitman, Shakespeare and Thomas Hardy added depth to this search; the poignant fate of Tess moved Vaughan Williams deeply throughout his long life. So too did the tragic endeavour of Captain Scott's expedition to the Antarctic. That "The Solent" is prefaced with a quote from a Philip Marston poem adds another layer-Marston's life was an uplifting example of remarkable achievement against a background of a succession of personal tragedies.
|Vaughan Williams as Private in the Royal Army Medical Corps, 1915|
The span of music presented here demonstrates two other elements of Vaughan Williams' character. The first is his depth of literary understanding, including, on this disc alone, settings or references to Philip Marston, Matthew Arnold, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jeremy Taylor, Dr Isaac Watts, Richard Crashaw, Robert Bridges and Thomas Hardy. The second element was his knowledge and love of the English countryside. He knew the New Forest well and often took holidays in the Salisbury area, near to Harnham Down and The Solent. The "Three Impressions for Orchestra" recorded here for the first time were followed by "In the Fen Country" (1904) and three "Norfolk Rhapsodies" (1906-only two survive). His knowledge of the English landscape was deepened by his folk-song collecting, in every corner of the country, from 1904. All this was, of course, part of Vaughan Williams' stated desire to create and sustain a "true school of English music", an aim he enthusiastically shared with his close friend Gustav Holst whose own Cotswold Symphony had been written in March, 1902.
1) Burley Heath (edited and completed by James Francis Brown)
In 1902 and 1903, Vaughan Williams was contemplating writing four impressions for orchestra to be called 'In the New Forest' of which Burley Heath was the first. Burley is a local village surrounded by open heathland.
There is no record of this likeable and warm-hearted work ever having been performed and a few bars were missing in the manuscript in the British Library. It was completed by the composer James Francis Brown for this recording. Vaughan Williams returned to some of the ideas first developed in Burley Heath with his "(A) London Symphony", completed in 1913.
2) The Solent (edited by James Francis Brown)
Composed between 1902 and 1903, this work is prefaced by the following quotation from a poem by Philip Marston (1850-87):
'Passion and sorrow in the deep sea's voice
A mighty mystery saddening all the wind'
Vaughan Williams knew this poem, extracted from To Cicely Nancy Marston, from the Collected Poems edited by Louise Chandler Moulton in 1892. He would have appreciated from the Introduction to this collection that Philip Marston's life was, indeed, a tragic one. Almost completely blinded by a seemingly innocuous childhood accident at the age of four, he lost his devoted mother when he was just 20 years old in 1870 and his fiancée Mary Nesbit from consumption just over a year later, in November 1871. As if this was not bad enough, his dear sister Cicely, a close companion, his very eyes and ears, died in 1878. As Louise Chandler Moulton put it, this was the "cruelest bereavement" to a man whose life was "eventful only in its sorrows and friendships".
Cicely's devotion to her brother's cause was total; they were inseparable. The poet says in lines just before the words that Vaughan Williams used to preface the score of The Solent:
'What were I dear, without thee?
Never recapture those sweet days.
We awoke to find passion and sorrow in the deep sea's voice
A mighty mystery saddening all the wind'
As often with Vaughan Williams, this apparently straightforward reference to the 'deep sea's voice' in a work evoking The Solent, a generally placid stretch of water between the Isle of Wight and the mainland of Southern England, has another layer of meaning. This added layer has more to do with Fate, with the fragility of life, with the search for 'those sweet days' and with life's 'mighty mystery'. No wonder the haunting opening melody on clarinet, marked ppp, not only dominates this work but was also used by Vaughan Williams in the first movement of his A Sea Symphony (to the line And on its limitless heaving breast, the ships), in his suite The England of Elizabeth (1955) and, most tellingly, in the second movement of his visionary and Hardy-inspired Ninth Symphony (1958). The Solent opens with that evocative melody soon accompanied by strings which suggests, for the first time in Vaughan Williams, the expressive and noble musical language soon to be realised more fully in the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis of 1910. Here is the 'mighty mystery' of Marston's poem. A new agitated section, with sea-birds calling, is more descriptive. Rich brass chords call up the 'deep sea's voice' The plaintive melody returns, with a hint of Elgar's Dream of Gerontius, before a deeply moving, visionary climax reminds us of both Tallis and the fourth movement of A Sea Symphony, a work which Vaughan Williams began to compose in 1903. This most satisfying of Vaughan Williams' early works ends with the clarinet solo, joined by cellos and basses, fading into the distance.
3) Harnham Down (edited by James Francis Brown)
Harnham Down was begun, as stated in the score, in July 1904 and finished in 1907. It was not part of the In the New Forest cycle but the first of two further Impressions for Orchestra, the second of which – Boldre Wood – has not survived. The area known as Harnham Down is near East Harnham, fairly close to Salisbury. Vaughan Williams was on holiday there in July, 1903 with his first wife, Adeline, and her mother. The work was first performed at the Queen's Hall in London on 12 November, 1907 with the New Symphony Orchestra conducted by Emil von Reznicek.
As with The Solent, this work also has a Preface, this time from the second stanza of 'A Scholar Gypsy' by Matthew Arnold (1822-1888):
Here will I sit and wait
While to my ear from uplands far away
The bleating of the folded flocks is borne
With distant cries of reapers in the corn –
All the live murmurs of a summer's day.
A lovely pastoral scene is evoked which Vaughan Williams was to set for narrator, chorus and orchestra in his An Oxford Elegy over forty years later in 1949. However, in Arnold's long poem, as in the music for Harnham Down, the pastoral imagery is only part of the narrative. A powerful sense of loss is described by the poet for 'repeated shocks, again, again, exhaust the energy of strongest souls'. The scholar gypsy awaits the 'spark from heaven' as we, who 'hesitate and falter life away' await it too.
The tranquil opening, marked andante sostenuto, reflects Arnold's gentle words. The violas are soon joined by clarinets and bassoon. The strings enter in a lovely andantino as the music becomes more Wagnerian in scope. Vaughan Williams had been deeply shaken by a performance of Tristan and Isolde in London, conducted by Mahler, in 1892. He visited Bayreuth in 1896 and studied in Berlin in 1897. The richness of orchestration and melodic flow suggests Tristan and Isolde, wandering hand-in-hand on Harnham Down. The melodies are repeated and the work becomes even more impassioned. Ultimately, the 'hesitations and faltering' of Arnold's poem are felt and the work concludes with a pppp marking for three solo violas.
"Harnham Down" is another remarkable find amongst the composer's early works. However, Vaughan Williams was dissatisfied, admitting in his Musical Autobiography that by 1908 he had 'come to a dead end' and that his music felt 'lumpy and stodgy' and too 'teutonic'. It was, we can now more clearly realize, the overtly Wagnerian Harnham Down that led to this feeling, despite its warmth and richness. Certainly his subsequent period of study with Ravel in early 1908 led to a more refined orchestral texture- just what he needed at that point in his musical development.
"Songs Of Travel (Book 1) for Baritone and Orchestra"
The three songs recorded here comprise Book 1 of the published cycle and were orchestrated, sumptuously, by Vaughan Williams in 1905. The other songs were orchestrated by Roy Douglas in 1961-2 (not included on this disc)
4) The Vagabond
The first poem of Stevenson's cycle also had in its title 'To an air by Schubert'. As the vagabond seeks the heaven above and 'the road below me', Vaughan Williams-like Stevenson-understands that dark fate is not far away, for "let the blow fall soon or late, let what will be o'er me". Yet the wanderer, stoically, and to a memorable Vaughan Williams marching rhythm, must keep going along the open road. The composer returned to this vigorous, sturdy style in Hugh's Song of the Road from the opera Hugh the Drover.
5) The Roadside Fire
Poem XI of Stevenson's cycle was untitled by the poet. Here we have the 'broad road' again, with the bird-song in morning and star-shine at night. Wonderfully uplifting orchestral accompaniment makes the setting at 'The fine song for singing, the rare song to hear!' very moving, sounding as fresh today as when it was written in the early years of the last century.
6) Bright Is The Ring Of Words
Another untitled two-stanza poem, this song has a deceptively stirring opening that soon shifts in mood to one of tenderness and nostalgia. The song ends movingly at "With the sunset embers, the lover lingers and sings and the maid remembers".
"Four Hymns for Tenor, Viola Obbligato and Strings"
The Four Hymns was Vaughan Williams first setting of an anthology, here embracing four different poets. Written between 1912 and 1914, the intimate and ecstatic style builds on the earlier "Five Mystical Songs" (1911) and was described by the composer as "much in the same mood as the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis" (1910). The choice of symbolic poetry, which is essentially meditative, was described by Ursula Vaughan Williams as being 'romantic poems of divine love and longing'. This allowed full expression to the mystical and contemplative side of Vaughan Williams's musical character. This style was explored in later works such as the ethereal "Flos campi" (1925) and the Prison Scene from "A Pilgrim's Progress" (1951).
As with Flos campi, the viola has a prominent part and adds colour to the texture of the music. Vaughan Williams varied the dynamics in this arrangement for string orchestra, compared to that for tenor, viola and piano, to allow the solo instrument to be heard more clearly. Like the Songs of Travel, Vaughan Williams shows a remarkable sensitivity to the meaning of the poems with the melody arising naturally from the text. Considerable skill is shown in the flexibility of the voice part and in this sense the work marks an advance on the "Five Mystical Songs".
7) Lord! Come Away (Maestoso)
The words by Jeremy Taylor (1613-67), Bishop of Down and Connor in Ireland, are an Advent Hymn sometimes referred to as Christ's Coming to Jerusalem in Triumph. It was written in 1655. The solemn, declamatory style of the music, with moments of repose, recalls Purcell and may have influenced Holst when writing his Hymn of Jesus in 1917.
8) Who Is This Fair One? (Andante moderato)
Dr. Isaac Watts (1674-1748) wrote over 750 hymns, including the popular 'When I Survey the Wondrous Cross'. His words seem to capture a sense of 'personal spirituality'. Vaughan Williams sets this narrative song, focusing on the 'spouse of Christ our God', with a significant role for the viola. The music evolves with that sense of ecstasy and wonder which Vaughan Williams made his own.
9) Come Love, Come Lord (Lento)
The composer turned to Richard Crashaw (1612 or 1613-49) for this hushed meditation on metaphysical themes of love and religion. The long viola introduction sets a moving context for the subsequent contemplation of 'that long day for which I languish'.
10) Evening Hymn (Andante commoto)
Often referred to as 'O Gladsome Light', this is one of the earlier Christian hymns to be sung at the lighting of the lamps in the evening. For this reason, it is also called the 'lamplighting' hymn. Robert Bridges (1844-1930) translated the hymn from the original Greek and included it in his Yattendon Hymnal of 1899. Vaughan Williams uses the viola to introduce a chorale-like melody, with bell-like ostinato accompaniment. Hubert Foss described this song as having its own 'glow of color'.
Incidental Music to "The Mayor Of Casterbridge"
Vaughan Williams set very little of Thomas Hardy (1840-1928). There is a song from The Dynasts (1908) and a wonderful setting of The Oxen in Hodie (1954) alongside the incidental music to the Mayor of Casterbridge. This is surprising given the composer's love of Hardy's novels and poetry. As Ursula Vaughan Williams put it: 'Ralph read all Hardy's novels, and one summer followed Tess's footsteps in her walk from Flintcomb-Ash to Emminster. He thought Tess the greatest of the novels …' Ursula told me in 1999: 'Ralph was fascinated by Tess. He went on walks to find her. He felt it was a fantastic story. He decided, however, that he did not want to write an opera on it – he felt it was too long and too complicated'. The basic connection between Hardy and Vaughan Williams' Ninth Symphony is now better understood – the original title of the first movement of the symphony was Wessex Prelude. Alain Frogley has written, in relation to the second movement, that the manuscript sources show the title 'Stonehenge' for the opening theme and 'Tess' linked with the main idea of the central section.
Against this background, Vaughan Williams was delighted when he was approached by the BBC to write incidental music for a new radio serial of The Mayor of Casterbridge to be broadcast on each Sunday for ten weeks starting 7 January, 1951 and finishing on 11 March, 1951. The BBC had a useful precedent in that Robert Louis Stevenson, no less, had secured Hardy's enthusiastic permission for a dramatization in 1886. Whilst nothing came of that project, the BBC showed more determination. The script was by Desmond Hawkins (1908-99), of BBC Natural History Unit fame, and the producer was the actor Owen Reed (1910-97). Desmond Hawkins put it this way shortly before his death: 'Of the Hardy plays I dramatized, The Mayor of Casterbridge was probably the outstanding success. It is, of course, superb material to re-create in dramatic form….To heighten the action we wanted specially composed music: the composer whose name sprang immediately to our minds was Vaughan Williams. The idea appealed to him and he wrote for us a magnificent score…'
On receiving the commission from the BBC, Vaughan Williams re-read the novel. He was particularly impressed by the first chapter of the book – elsewhere he felt there were too many coincidences and overheard conversations. However he enjoyed writing the music and it was performed by the BBC West of England Light Orchestra conducted by Reginald Redman. The incidental music from the broadcast was not published until 2010 although, to avoid the music being lost, Vaughan Williams wrote the Prelude on an Old Carol Tune, based on music from the play, in 1952.
11) Weyhill Fair Song
This section on music connected with The Mayor of Casterbridge opens with the Weyhill Fair Song, subtitled The Wearing of the Horns. When Vaughan Williams was looking for suitable material to represent the impulsive and drunken goings-on in the dramatic opening scenes in Weydon-Priors (Weyhill) Fair, he utilised a folk song he had known since 1912. The Wearing of the Horns was noted by Miss Eggar at Farnham and sent to Cecil Sharp in 1911. The song celebrates an annual custom carried out at the Star Inn in Weyhill during the hop fair. It is an initiation ceremony involving a cup full of beer (or wine for the more well-to-do) placed on the head of a young 'colt' between two horns. All sing and dance as the colt drinks the contents of the cup. As the ceremony was repeated for each new colt being initiated, the event often became very lively! Vaughan Williams uses motifs from the song in the third part of the incidental music recorded here for the first time, emphasizing the vulgar, drunken and 'elbows-in-theribs' activities at the Fair.
12) Mayor of Casterbridge
Vaughan Williams selected one of his favourite carols for use in the Casterbridge music. This was On Christmas Night the Joy-Bells Ring from a tune noted by Dr James Culwick in Dublin and communicated in 1904. Another version of the carol (On Christmas Night the Joy-Bells Ring) was noted by Lucy Broadwood in Surrey and by Vaughan Williams himself, from Mrs Verrall in Monks Gate, near Horsham in Sussex, on May 24th, 1904. As the Sussex Carol, Vaughan Williams also included it in his masque On Christmas Night (1926) and in the work he was composing just before his death in 1958, The First Nowell. For the Casterbridge music, the carol is repeated four times in different settings, richly orchestrated. It captures, in its lyricism, warmth and timelessness, Hardy's superb descriptions of 'Casterbridge' (Dorchester) in the months before the railway was to change the town for ever.
This gentle Intermezzo represents the calm influence of the clear-sighted and understated Elizabeth-Jane and her simple and affectionate mother, Susan. It is reminiscent of the music to Lake in the Mountains from the film 49th Parallel.
14) Weyhill Fair
Five sections (A to E in the score) are presented here, consisting of fragments of background music. The nightmarish quality of these episodes captures Michael Henchard's search for his wife Susan at Weydon-Priors (Weyhill) Fair after a night of drinking 'furmity' laced with serious measures of rum. His desperation at what he had done to Susan and the baby, together with the effects of the drink, are suggested in these short dramatic moments. The staccato rhythms recall the Weyhill Fair Song (Track 11) whilst all the tragedy of the novel follows on from these episodes at the Fair.
"Prelude On An Old Carol Tune"
15) Prelude On An Old Carol Tune
Completed in 1952 and first performed by the BBC West of England Light Orchestra under Reginald Redman on the 18th November that year, this Prelude is founded on the incidental music to The Mayor of Casterbridge. It utilises the carol melody first heard in the Casterbridge section (track 12) with a breadth, warmth and love for the folk-song that recalls Vaughan Williams' Five Variants on Dives and Lazarus of 1939. The uplifting strains of a beloved folk-carol, from 1952, complete this survey of fifty years in the life and music of Ralph Vaughan Williams. Whilst Elizabeth-Jane might conclude in the closing lines of The Mayor of Casterbridge that 'happiness was but the occasional episode in a general drama of pain', for Vaughan Williams Time and Chance had dealt a fairer hand to the benefit of us all, for all time.
Enjoy this magnificent survey!
*I inadvertently encoded the files @ 256, but if anyone wants it that way here it is:
Ok just encoded it @ 320 high quality m4a, my usual: