This incredible Albion Records disc highlights both Vaughan Williams's skill in setting English poetry and prose to music and his abiding love of the violin, which he described as his 'musical salvation'.
The highlight of this program is Vaughan Williams's violin and piano arrangement of the ever-popular "The Lark Ascending" (as well as the Violin Concerto in D minor, "Concerto Accademico") , one of the most beautiful compositions written during the 20th century. Only the second recording in this format, the young British violinist Matthew Trusler is accompanied by Iain Burnside. They also perform (flawlessly) Vaughan Williams's beautiful "Six Studies in English Folk Song" (1926) alongside the world-premiere recording of the Concerto Accademico (1925), arranged here for violin and piano by Constant Lambert. The "Songs of Travel" is here performed and played superbly; this is now one of my top choices for this cycle.
The title "Stars in the Night" is from a line in 'The Infinite Shining Heavens', being track six of the Songs of Travel:
I saw them distant as heaven,
Dumb and shining and dead,
And the idle stars of the night
Were dearer to me than bread.
"Songs of Travel"
This song cycle was composed between 1901 and 1904. It consists of nine settings of a total of 44 poems by Robert Louis Stevenson (1850–1894), published under the same title in 1896, some thirteen years after Treasure Island. Vaughan Williams responded to the sturdy, open-air quality of the poetry which contains vivid imagery, a homespun lyricism and an underlying poignancy as the wanderer accepts whatever life throws at him. The poems stimulated Vaughan Williams's romantic imagination to produce songs which sound both spontaneous and vibrant, with remarkably sensitive word-setting. As Michael Kennedy has said, 'it is impossible, once heard, to read the poems without remembering Vaughan Williams' setting'.
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".
This lovely song is Vaughan Williams in his most overtly romantic style. Untitled at number IX in Stevenson's cycle, it is a tender, gentle poem matched by an expressive Vaughan Williams's melody, with rippling arpeggio accompaniment. Vaughan Williams would return to this vein of lyricism many times in his life, including Amaryllus's Dear love behold in Act II of "The Poisoned Kiss".
Poem X1 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. An uplifting allegretto 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.
This poem is called Youth and Love – II in Stevenson's cycle and to make sense of the text reference needs to be made to Youth and Love – I, not set by Vaughan Williams. In the first part of the poem, the wanderer, after kissing his sweetheart at the garden gate, travels 'the uncharted' toward battle and danger. From a choice of settled pleasures or setting forth alone, he has chosen the latter. By the second part-the one set by Vaughan Williams-as compensation, perhaps, for his 'nobler' choice, pleasures assail him on the journey as he cries but a brief wayside word to the one he had kissed 'at the garden gate'.
Vaughan Williams here followed the chronological order of Stevenson's cycle as the poet had placed this introverted, sad lyric after Youth and Love – II. The wanderer remembers the tearful girl he had left behind, with the 'unremembered tokens in your hand'. The andantino melody is suitably melancholy.
(6) The Infinite Shining Heavens
The wanderer contemplates the 'idle stars of the night' in his sorrow until, lo, a 'star had come down to me'. Vaughan Williams maintains the inward style of In Dreams in this subdued setting.
(7) Whither Must I Wander
Stevenson added to the number XVI of this poem 'To the Tune of Wandering Willie'. This is a song by Robert Burns (Here awa', there awa'). Vaughan Williams, who wrote this song first in around 1901, prefers a homespun lyricism which complements perfectly the open air quality of 'Spring shall come, come again….Spring shall bring the sun and rain, bring the bees and flowers'.
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'.
The final song of the cycle consists of four lines, being all of Stevenson's poem number XXII. Discovered only after the composer's death in 1958, it provides a most satisfying and moving epilogue to the cycle, quoting from three of the earlier songs – The Vagabond, Whither Must I Wander and Bright is the Ring of Words. The andante sostenuto marking lends the music a suitably ruminative quality as the wanderer reflects on his life, when he had 'lived and loved, and closed the door'.
Originally written for cello and piano, Vaughan Williams dedicated this work to the cellist May Mukle who gave the first performance in 1926. The composer then arranged the work for solo violin in 1927. In these deceptively simple studies, the composer shows his love and understanding of English folk-song. All but the last song are contemplative in character and all are exceptionally beautiful. Michael Kennedy, in his comprehensive Catalogue of the Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams, states the folk-song origins of each of the Studies as follows:
(10) Lovely on the Water (The Springtime of the Year)
(11) Spurn Point
(12) Van Dieman's Land
(13) She Borrowed Some of her Mother's Gold
(14) The Lady and the Dragoon
(15) As I walked over London Bridge
Three Songs From "The Pilgrim's Progress"
Vaughan Williams' first encounter with John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress was as a young child when the story was read to him in the late 1870s. Not surprisingly, the moving prose, gripping story and vivid imagery stayed with him.
It was over seventy years later, in 1951, that the complete opera, or 'Morality' as the composer preferred to call it, was first performed at Covent Garden. This lifelong association with Bunyan's allegory produced a work of profound depth, remarkable scale, poetry and nobility which represents the pinnacle of Vaughan Williams's operatic achievement and perhaps one of his greatest works overall.
The Pilgrim's Progress had been written between 1667 and 1672 when the Bedfordshire tinker and preacher had been languishing in Bedford gaol. The direct and often trenchant prose, together with the symbolism and poetry of the work, make an immediate impact. The characters are recognisable from everyday experience but transcend the mundane by Bunyan's strong reformatory message focusing on Everyman's spiritual journey to Eternity. This co-existence of a burning spiritual faith alongside the day-to-day struggles and weaknesses of humanity is both engaging and inspiring. No wonder The Pilgrim's Progress was a constant companion of the soldiers (including Vaughan Williams) in the trenches of the First World War who had their own 'Slough of Despond' to deal with.
After the first performance of the opera, perhaps fearing (correctly as it turned out) that the full work would rarely see the light of day, Vaughan Williams adapted seven of the songs for voice and piano. Three of the songs are for baritone soloist and are as follows:
Composed to cover a scene change between Acts I and II, Christ's words from the cross, from Psalm 121, are set with remarkable nobility. It is a most moving song, restrained and contemplative.
17) The Song of the Pilgrims:
Vaughan Williams included Bunyan's rousing He who would valiant be in the English Hymnal of 1906. In the opera it opens Act II.
18) The Pilgrim's Psalm:
Also from Act II, this setting is adapted from the Epistles of St. Paul and the Book of Psalms. It covers the arming of Pilgrim as he prepares for the fight with Apollyon in the Valley of Humiliation.
Violin Concerto In D minor "Concerto Accademico" (arr. for violin and piano by Constant Lambert)
Composed in 1924-25, this work, originally for violin and string orchestra, is relatively unknown amongst the composer's works. It is, in it's original string orchestra guise, one of my favorite RVW works. The subtitle, "Concerto Accademico", may not have encouraged repeated listening and Vaughan Williams seems to have had his own doubts about this title as he dropped it for a performance in London by Yehudi Menuhin in September, 1952. More significantly, however, the work has a cool, economical, detached quality that informs certain of the composer's works in the mid-1920s including Sancta Civitas (1925). Although he threw himself into peacetime work after demobilisation in 1919/20, the impact of the Great War on a composer of sensitivity and rare depth of thought, emerges in these compositions. The ultimate expression of this new style is the austere and deeply moving Along the Field of 1927. It is quite gripping also as performed here in Lambert's arrangement.
(19) Allegro pesante:
A sturdy and at times brusque 2/4 rhythm in the opening movement is rather neo-Bach in style although (as with many works of this period) the influence of Vaughan Williams's close friend Gustav Holst is felt. The angular writing for the solo instrument is far removed from the lyricism of The Lark Ascending.
Although the slow movement has markings of cantabile, and does introduce a certain tenderness, this movement, with its arabesques, remains close in spirit to Bach.
Beginning with various cross-rhythms, the dance-like figurations propel the music onwards. In a note in the score, Vaughan Williams says that the opening theme is, in part, taken from his first opera Hugh the Drover where it occurs in Act II, Scene II, just after John the Butcher sings of his 'belly with beer'. Be that as it may, the propulsive nature of this music is very far from the folk inspired qualities of the earlier ballad-opera. This imaginative arrangement for violin and piano was undertaken by Constant Lambert (1905–51) in 1927. He had already arranged "The Wasps" Overture for piano, four hands, and would go on to conduct the first performance of Job, in his own reduced orchestration, in 1931.
(22) This lyrical and timeless Romance belongs to that group of folk-inspired works composed before the Great War, including "A London Symphony" and much of Vaughan Williams' ballad-opera, "Hugh the Drover", which was finished in vocal score in May, 1914. In September, 1913 the composer was still busy collecting folk-songs such as 'The trees they grow so high' from hop-pickers near Ledbury and something of the gentle, rhapsodic quality of this folk-song can be heard in The Lark Ascending. Words fail!!
The specific inspiration for Vaughan Williams' pastoral outpouring, as I'm sure many of you already know, was George Meredith's 122-line poem of the same name taken from "Poems and Lyrics of the Joys of Earth" (1883). Vaughan Williams quotes the following twelve lines from the poem in the score of the orchestral edition of 1925:
He drops the silver chain of sound,
Of many links without a break,
In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake.
For singing till his heaven fills,
'Tis love of earth that he instils,
And ever winging up and up,
Our valley is his golden cup,
And he the wine which overflows
To lift us with him when he goes.
Till lost on his aerial rings
In light, and then the fancy sings
Meredith (1828–1909) was a close neighbor of Vaughan Williams, living across the North Downs in Box Hill, Surrey. The 'poet-novelist' shows considerable sensitivity to both landscape and human emotions in his works, qualities that would have impressed Vaughan Williams. In The Lark Ascending, the composer adopts a simplicity and directness of style which, nevertheless, is unusual in its use of cadenzas for the violin soloist written without bar-lines. The work begins and ends magically, with the violin emerging from soft chords to begin a songful ascent to the skies. A more restless central section, folk-like but without quoting from actual folk-tunes, provides contrast before the lark soars again, ever winging up and up, till lost in shimmering light.
This "arrangement" (this is actually the original draft/score) for violin and piano was made by Vaughan Williams and performed before the much-loved orchestral version, on 15 December, 1920, by Marie Hall (to whom the work is dedicated) and Geoffrey Mendham.
"Songs Of Travel" for Baritone and Piano (23:07)
1) The Vagabond (3:23)
2 )Let Beauty Awake (2:00)
3 T)he Roadside Fire (2:29)
4) Youth and Love (3:29)
5 )In Dreams (2:22)
"Six Studies In English Folk Song" (9:26) (arr. by the composer for violin and piano)
10) Lovely on the Water (1:41)
11) Spurn Point (1:13)
12) Van Dieman's Land (1:32)
13) She Borrowed Some of her Mother's Gold (1:26)
14) The Lady and the Dragoon (1:25)
15) As I Walked over London Bridge (0:55)
"Three Songs From The Pilgrim's Progress" (9:07) (arr. by the composer for baritone and piano)
16) Watchful's Song (Nocturne) (6:14)
17) The Song of the Pilgrims (1:51)
18) The Pilgrim’s Psalm (2:31)
Violin Concerto In D Minor "Concerto Accademico" (13:59) (arr. for violin and piano by Constant Lambert)
19) Allegro pesante (5:29)
20) Adagio (5:49)
21) Presto (4:38)
"The Lark Ascending" (arr. by the composer for violin and piano) (13:23)
22 Andante sostenuto/Allegretto tranquillo/Largamente
Matthew Trusler - violin
Roland Wood - baritone
Iain Burnside - piano