Here is another outstanding disc of unknown RVW works from his earliest (the Serenade in A minor, Vaughan William's *first* orchestral effort, dates from 1898!) period to pieces from his later years (Folk Songs of the Four Seasons, from 1949). Extra exciting for any Vaughan Williams fan is that this recording is made up of entirely world-premieres. Indeed, I almost flipped my lid when this was released.
It is well known that Vaughan Williams did not find his mature voice, a few songs apart, until his mid-thirties, despite having produced a considerable catalog of earlier music-music that while performed in the early 1900s was no longer heard after his more familiar works began to appear. It has been forgotten for a century. In fact, there exists a number of orchestral and choral-orchestral works written by Vaughan Williams during and soon after he was a student at the Royal College of Music. While not always immediately recognizable as the work of the mature composer, they are still viable works of art with something to say.
Vaughan Williams collected his first folksong (Bushes and Briars) at Ingrave in Essex 1903, an event that launched him on an intensive period of collecting from the older generation of country folk across the south of England. This was music that sound found its way into his concert music, neatly encapsulated by Anthony Payne when he wrote: "What Vaughan Williams realized was that modes held the secret to writing a new kind of symphonic music. It would enable him to cast off the yoke of Austro-German practice, and create new sound worlds".
Yet Vaughan Williams when still trying to find a musical language was already ware of folksong and its existence in printed sources. We realize this when we learn that he actually went to Ingrave to repeat a series of lectures on the "History of Folk Song", which he had given elsewhere the previous year when (the English folksong collector) Lucy Broadwood sang the musical illustrations. As soon as he realized that such songs were still known to the older residents of country districts before the days of radio and easy road travel, he went on a collecting binge, 'harvesting' a large number of songs.
One can sympathize with Vaughan Williams that once he had found his mature voice in glorious scores such as "In the Fen Country" (1904) and the "First Norfolk Rhapsody" (1906), and later "On Wenlock Edge" (1909), A Sea Symphony (1910), and the unspeakably beautiful Tallis Fantasia (also 1910), he would not want music he might consider immature to be widely played until his mature style was established. However, more than half a century after the composer's death, with his music extensively recorded and pretty much all of his mature works well known, it seems appropriate to investigate those early scores that not infrequently display flashes of what was to come. And the early works presented here, and others that I have come to know are all very enjoyable, often more so (for me) than the mature works of many a composer. Vaughan Williams early chamber music has already been heard again, and exploration that revealed a body of enjoyable and well-made music, though generally with little stylistic relevance to his later output. In contrast, the early orchestral and choral-orchestral music is revealing in that when working on a larger canvas the vision-the idiom-that Vaughan Williams was seeking kept breaking through, more often than not leaving us with an enlargement of his catalog of works that is not only very worthwhile on its own account but cherishable as "Vaughan Williams".
"Folk Songs of the Four Seasons - Suite"
Folk Songs of the Four Seasons is an extended choral work for massed women's voices, written in 1949 for the National Federation of Women's Institutes. Three thousand members of the Federation sang it at the Royal Albert Hall on June 15th, 1950. It did not catch on as did much similar works of Vaughan Williams, and in 1952, Roy Douglas, who contributed so much to Vaughan Williams's later music by creating fair copies from the composer's chaotic manuscript scores, started working on an orchestral suite taken from it. He wrote in his memoirs, "Working with Vaughan Williams", "In the middle of January 1952 I happened to be looking through the published vocal score of Folk Songs of the Four Seasons, and had a bright idea I could make a suite, for orchestra only, from some of the most attractive and suitable movements, based, of course, on the original orchestration". In a month or so, he was able to show a draft to the composer, and finally delivered it to Oxford University Press on August 4th, 1953. It was published in 1956, Vaughan Williams envisaging it being playable by varied orchestral forces. The five short movements incorporate nine folksongs out of the seventeen set in the original. The arrangement broadly follows the calendar, the plan of the "turning year" though without the depths of winter, taking us from ploughing and Maytime through to Christmas.
Bucolic is a word that often comes to mind for me in RVW's more "pastoral" scores that aurally depict the English countryside (Vaughan Williams just loved strolling through the countryside!). The Bucolic Suite is dated November 29th, 1900 though it was subsequently revised, dated August 30th, 1901. Like the "Serendae in A minor", it too was first performed at Bournemouth, just under a year later on March 10th, 1902. It was probably heard several times after that, and the last known performance was in Cardiff on January 30th, 1907. Professor of Music Julian Rushton writes, "the form of the Bucolic Suite is comparable to a symphony", and, at that same time, RVW's close friend Gustav Holst was working on his "Cotswolds Symphony"-itself, with its simple first movement-perhaps more "suite" than symphony. Here, Vaughan Williams asks for a bigger orchestra than in the "Serenade.." with the addition of three trombones, tuba, and harp (in the Andante). In this four movement suite, Vaughan William's orchestral manner is quite distinctive and reflects the approach in the Serenade, especially in his treatment of the woodwind and the accompanying strings, and the light, open scoring punctuated by brief tuttis. Vaughan Williams's preference for transition rather than gradual modulation is already in evidence. In this work, the European influence is more pronounced than in the earlier Serenade, with what are surely passing reminiscences of Dvorak and Bruch.
"Dark Pastorale for Cello and Orchestra"
Dark Pastorale takes what survives of the slow movement of Vaughan William's unfinished draft of a Cello Concerto, on which he was working on in 1942-1943-and which probably tinkered with over the succeeding years. This was intended for no less a soloist than Pablo Casals. Vaughan Williams made considerable progress with the first movement, headed 'Rhapsody', and with the unfinished slow movement, but less so with the finale. Composer David Matthews (whose symphonies I have been 'trying' to like..) has now taken the short score sketch of the slow movement and completed it as "Dark Pastoral", which was performed at the 2010 Proms. We are told there are about four minutes of music from RVW's original two-stave short score, which he left with just a few indications of scoring. Parallels with "The Lark Ascending" perhaps will come to mind for many.. The A section of what would probably have been (loosely) an ABA movement was written by Vaughan Williams (the score ends just as it is branching off into something else). Matthews has orchestrated it and composed about six minutes of music based mostly on the first section, with some new material in the middle. Even with these touches it's really very lovely.
"Serenade in A minor" (1898)
Vaughan Williams left the Royal College of Music in July of 1896 and married Adeline Fisher on October 9th, 1897. The couple spent their honeymoon in Berlin where they heard much German music including The Ring, and where Vaughan Williams took lessons from the composer Max Bruch, remaining there until April 1898 (hmm long honeymoon). During 1898, Vaughan William's was working on his doctoral exercise-a work we know now as the "Cambridge Mass", first performed on March 3rd, 2011-and this Serenade for small Orchestra. The Serenade, RVW's first orchestral work, was conceived in four movements -Prelude, Scherzo, Intermezzo & Trio, Finale-to which, a year or two later, the composer added a Romance, possibly as a replacement movement for the Intermezzo & Trio (in the autographed manuscript however, only the Trio is marked for possible deletion). It had first been heard in the UK when the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra programmed it in April 1901, and in London in in March 1908, after which RVW's withdrew it. The autograph manuscript is now at Yale University, and the Serenade in A minor had an outing there in 1986 by the New England Chamber Orchestra conducted by James Sinclair.
The 'Prelude' is remarkable for the arpeggiated opening motif with its upward leap, which from the outset briefly seems to have us in the mature world of RVW, and while the harmonic language is from an earlier world, he appears to have an impressive command of the orchestra in a first attempt! The scoring is transparent, and the tuttis when they occur make a powerful impression.
The 'Scherzo' is a dancing Allegro in 6/8, almost a folk dance in its own right and with a wonderfully burbling second subject theme first heard on the bassoon and later on the trumpet, all framed by an episode of eight repeated bars.
The stately 'Intermezzo & Trio' (Allegretto - Trio (poco piu mosso)) is a slow dance with a contrasted Trio and concluding da capo (the opening is repeated). The Trio is notable for using Gustav Holst's trick of a repeated falling pizzicato scale as accompaniment or bass-could it be his contribution to his friend's score?
But it is in the 'Romance' (Andantino - Appassionato), written initially to replace the Intermezzo & Trio, that we find Vaughan Williams has developed stylistically from the rest of the Serenade. It is surely worth considering not only as part of the Serenade but also as a lovely encore in its own right. Muted strings at the outset present a murmuring accompaniment over which the clarinet sings a long tune soon taken up by the strings and horn in counterpoint. In a pastoral episode, a solo oboe evokes birdsong, thrice repeated (VW had just seen Siegfried), and the strings then introduce a lyrical theme, which at its climax seems to have us (again) in VW's mature world.
The opening of the 'Finale' (Allegro) is an ebullient march in 2/4, the harbinger of many similar movements to come. After a minute or so there follows a contrasted lyrical episode with answering woodwind solos. These alternate and eventually the movement ends with the marching 2/4.
In a letter, Adeline Vaughan Williams wrote that "Ralph.... is writing a new Serenade for orchestra, which is turning out very Dvorak-y" In fact, viewed from today we might find less influence of the Czech master here than in the Bucolic Suite that followed. Later, VW wrote to his friend Holst, telling of his "final talk with Stanford" in which he "agreed that if I added a short movement in E major in the middle & altered the coda the thing might stand". Although Stanford (as in the elder conservative composer Sir Charles Villiers) rehearsed it three times, he never placed it in a program.
Enjoy this magnificent disc