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At this time marks the one hundred and fiftieth birthday of one in every of England’s most revered composers, Ralph Vaughan Williams, who can also be extensively beloved past Britain. A folksong knowledgeable who logged lengthy journeys gathering conventional tunes all around the British Isles, Vaughan Williams famously produced gently modal folksong fantasies evoking England’s “inexperienced and nice land.” He additionally grew to become a go-to composer for main events of church and state, known as on to replicate and amplify nationwide feeling.
This 12 months, his sesquicentennial, celebrations of the English grasp have been surprisingly muted, even in his homeland – a lift in Vaughan Williams programming final summer time on the BBC’s Promenade concert events was the uncommon exception. Has his star dimmed within the six a long time since his demise? In our brash, ironic age, a composer who penned seemingly countless pages of pastoralia – properly crafted, honest in feeling, however maybe significant principally to confirmed Anglophiles – could appear pleasantly irrelevant and quaint. Particularly in a 12 months like this one.
For everybody, 2022 has been troublesome. Uncertainties abound, and Britain has been hit particularly laborious. The price of residing has surged, whereas the worth of the pound has plummeted. The COVID pandemic stubbornly persists; battle in Europe appears uncomfortably close to. Political life within the post-Brexit local weather is polarized and ugly – and the one unifying determine tying British residents to 1 one other and to their shared previous has gone to higher glory after 70 years on the throne. The demise of Queen Elizabeth II on Sept. 8 appeared the final straw to many.
However such challenges present exactly the event to revisit the quintessentially British Vaughan Williams. We are likely to view him via a mild haze of nostalgia, forgetting that he lived via profoundly turbulent occasions, responding with music of spectacular vary and complexity. He endured two world wars, an unprecedented royal abdication, the decline of the Empire and the rise of the Chilly Warfare. The music of Vaughan Williams can converse profoundly to the unrest of the current age, not solely in Nice Britain however properly past its borders.
His sesquicentennial provides the right alternative to get reacquainted with an underestimated grasp. Beneath, I provide some options to start a “revisiting Vaughan Williams” journey. (In case your favorites aren’t right here, be assured that this checklist is not exhaustive. And if you happen to encounter some music you by no means knew earlier than, a lot the higher!)
Songs of Journey (1901-1904)
The opening bars of this track cycle set the inexorable tempo of a wanderer’s trek; you may simply think about a younger Vaughan Williams tramping via the countryside in the hunt for conventional tunes and, in reality, these songs coincide together with his first forays into folksong assortment. However these delicate settings of Robert Louis Stevenson poems clearly descend from Nineteenth-century European traditions instilled within the composer by two titans of British music, Hubert Parry and Charles Villiers Stanford.
Aristophanic Suite (Overture and Incidental Music for The Wasps, 1909)
Although this witty music sounds unmistakably English, it additionally displays the composer’s three months of intensive examine with Maurice Ravel, who commented that amongst all his pupils, solely Vaughan Williams by no means mimicked his instructor. Vaughan Williams the “pupil” was already an skilled composer when he sought out Ravel, and retained his extremely particular person voice whereas absorbing a higher transparency and mastery of instrumental shade that might grace each orchestral work that adopted.
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910, revised 1919)
Vaughan Williams edited The English Hymnal within the first decade of the twentieth century, restoring many conventional hymn tunes and chorales to their unique form and planting a number of English folks tunes in its pages. This beloved fantasia attracts on a somber, poignant Sixteenth-century psalm setting. The ingenious scoring for string quartet and two orchestras, one massive and one small, allowed Vaughan Williams to construct nice swells of sound, evoking Gothic structure.
Mass in G minor (1922)
The Nice Warfare silenced Vaughan Williams. Already in mature center age, he served as an ambulance driver and was deeply affected by the battlefield scenes he witnessed and the deaths of a number of mates. He additionally suffered everlasting injury to his listening to. Solely within the ’20s did he start to compose once more, and one in every of his first works of substance was this Mass evoking Renaissance fashions, which choral fans rank alongside the best sacred music of his Tudor-era predecessors, Thomas Tallis and William Byrd.
Symphony No. 4 (1935)
This austere, uncompromising opus shocked and shocked audiences and critics when it appeared throughout a interval of accelerating rigidity throughout Europe, however Vaughan Williams’ friends, notably William Walton and Malcolm Arnold, instantly discerned its price. There isn’t a sentiment right here, no nostalgia – which isn’t to say it lacks deep feeling. Its sober, muscular counterpoint completely captured the anxious uncertainty of prewar Britain.
Oboe Concerto (1944)
This quirky charmer dates from the closing years of World Warfare II and, under its genial floor, holds a lingering sense of unrest blended with humor and hope. Effectively into his 70s, Vaughan Williams was nonetheless exploring new formal and harmonic prospects. This concerto’s construction is unorthodox: A leisurely opening pastorale, laced with solo cadenzas, results in a quick dance interlude, adopted by a virtuosic ultimate scherzo. There isn’t a central gradual motion, and nearly no relaxation for the oboist, both.
Three Shakespeare Songs (1951)
A trio of magical, incantatory poems from The Tempest and A Midsummer Night time’s Dream prompted these fantastical, impressionistic miniatures. Their mercurial harmonic shifts and verbal results require flawless tuning and diction from the singers to attain their full impact.
Previous a hundredth Psalm Tune (1953)
Vaughan Willliams’ ease in merging musical, non secular, and patriotic references from a number of eras made him an ideal composer for stately events such because the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. This hymn, by Sixteenth-century French Calvinist Louis Bourgeois, is related in England with a metrical model of Psalm 100 (“All Folks That on Earth Do Dwell”), and one verse of Vaughan Williams’ majestic association is a fauxbourdon, attributed to the Renaissance composer John Dowland – a respectful and pertinent nod to the primary Elizabethan age.