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Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Celebrating the a hundred and fiftieth birthday of British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams : NPR

Ralph Vaughan Williams.

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ullstein bild Dtl./ullstein bild by way of Getty Photographs

Ralph Vaughan Williams.

ullstein bild Dtl./ullstein bild by way of Getty Photographs

In the present day marks the a hundred and fiftieth birthday of certainly one of England’s most revered composers, Ralph Vaughan Williams, who can be extensively beloved past Britain. A folksong knowledgeable who logged lengthy journeys accumulating 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 mirror 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 live shows was the uncommon exception. Has his star dimmed within the six many years since his loss of life? In our brash, ironic age, a composer who penned seemingly infinite pages of pastoralia – effectively crafted, honest in feeling, however maybe significant largely 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 onerous. 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 unsightly – and the one unifying determine tying British residents to 1 one other and to their shared previous has gone to larger glory after 70 years on the throne. The loss of life 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 inclined to view him by means of a mild haze of nostalgia, forgetting that he lived by means of profoundly turbulent instances, 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 effectively past its borders.

His sesquicentennial provides the right alternative to get reacquainted with an underestimated grasp. Beneath, I provide some recommendations to start a “revisiting Vaughan Williams” journey. (In case your favorites aren’t right here, be assured that this listing is not exhaustive. And when you encounter some music you by no means knew earlier than, a lot the higher!)

Songs of Journey (1901-1904)

(Please observe that the above recording solely comprises the primary track of this cycle.)


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 by means of the countryside in the hunt for conventional tunes and, in reality, these songs coincide along 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 trainer. Vaughan Williams the “pupil” was already an skilled composer when he sought out Ravel, and retained his extremely particular person voice whereas absorbing a larger transparency and mastery of instrumental colour 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 people 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 giant 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 pals. He additionally suffered everlasting injury to his listening to. Solely within the ’20s did he start to compose once more, and certainly one of his first works of substance was this Mass evoking Renaissance fashions, which choral lovers rank alongside the best sacred music of his Tudor-era predecessors, Thomas Tallis and William Byrd.

Symphony No. 4 (1935)

(The Symphony No. 4 begins at 3:15.)


This austere, uncompromising opus stunned and shocked audiences and critics when it appeared throughout a interval of accelerating pressure throughout Europe, however Vaughan Williams’ friends, notably William Walton and Malcolm Arnold, instantly discerned its value. 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)

(Please observe that the above recording solely comprises the primary motion of this concerto. The oboist is Stephane Rancourt.)


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 short 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 Evening’s Dream prompted these fantastical, impressionistic miniatures. Their mercurial harmonic shifts and verbal results require flawless tuning and diction from the singers to realize their full impact.

Previous a hundredth Psalm Tune (1953)


Vaughan Willliams’ ease in merging musical, spiritual, 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.

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