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8.550737 - VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Symphonies Nos. 7 and 8
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Sinfonia antartica (Symphony No.7)
Ralph Vaughan Williams was born in the Gloucestershire village of Down Ampney in 1872, the son of a clergyman. His ancestry on both his father's and mother's side was of some intellectual distinction. His father was descended from a family eminent in the law, while his maternal grandfather was a Wedgwood and his grandmother a Darwin. On the death of his father in 1875 the family moved to live with his mother's father at Leith Hill Place in Surrey. As a child Vaughan Williams learned the piano and the violin and received a conventional upper middle class education at Charterhouse, after which he delayed entry to Cambridge, preferring instead to study at the Royal College of Music, where his teachers included Hubert Parry and Walter Parratt, later Master of the Queen's Musick, both soon to be knighted. In 1892 he took up his place at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he read History, but took composition lessons from Charles Wood. After graduation in both History and Music, he returned to the Royal College, where he studied composition with Stanford, and, perhaps more significant, became a friend of a fellow-student, Gustav Holst. The friendship with Holst was to prove of great importance in frank exchanges of views on one another's compositions in the years that followed.
In 1897 Vaughan Williams married and took the opportunity to visit Berlin, where he had lessons from Max Bruch and widened his musical experience. In England he turned his attention to the collection of folk-music in various regions of the country, an interest that materially influenced the shape of his musical language. In 1908 he went to Paris to take lessons, particularly in orchestration, from Ravel, and had by now begun to make a reputation for himself as a composer, not least with the first performance in 1910 of his first symphony, A Sea Symphony, setting words by Walt Whitman, and his Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis in the same year. The even tenor of his life was interrupted by the war, when he enlisted at once in the Royal Army Medical Corps as a private. 1914 was also the year of the London Symphony and of his rhapsodic work for violin and orchestra, The Lork Ascending. Three years later, after service in Salonica that seemed to him ineffective, he took a commission in the Royal Garrison Artillery and was posted to France. There he was also able to make some use of his abilities as a musician.
After the war Vaughan Williams returned to the Royal College of Music, now as a professor of composition, a position he retained until 1938. In these years he came to occupy a commanding position in the musical life of the country, with a series of compositions that seemed essentially English, the apparent successor of Elgar, although his musical language was markedly different. The war of 1939 brought the challenge of composition for the cinema, with notable scores for The 49th Parallel in 1940 and a number of other films, culminating in 1949 in his music for the film Scott of the Antarctic, the basis of the seventh of his symphonies. Other works of the last decade of his life included two more symphonies, the opera The Pilgrim's Progress, a violin sonata and concertos for harmonica and for tuba, remarkable adventures for an octogenarian. He died in August 1958, four months after the first performance of his last symphony.
In an essay on the subject in 1945 Vaughan Williams praises the discipline involved in writing film- music, recommending it to teachers of composition. His essay contains much common sense on the matter, although he cannot help looking forward to the possibility of a film that takes its origin from the music itself. His music for Scott of the Antarctic was the seventh of his eleven film-scores, if the final The Vision of William Blake is to be included, a film that matches Blake's illustrations of the Book of Job with Vaughan Williams's Job: A Masque for Dancing. The story of Captain Scott's last expedition to the Antarctic, in a vain effort to be the first to reach the South Pole, is well known, with the gallantry of Captain Oates in choosing death rather than hamper the chance of survival of the other members of the expedition, all of whom died. The film was a tribute to the heroism of Scott and his companions. It provided Vaughan Williams with a necessary stimulus to optimism, after the perceived desolation of his Sixth Symphony, which some had seen as a 'war symphony'. Scott exemplified admirable qualities of loyalty, courage, firmness of purpose and, indeed, all that seemed best in the human spirit, and the film was in accordance with the then policy of Ealing Studios. It was directed by Charles Frend, with a cast led by John Mills.
The Sinfonia antartica, in which Vaughan Williams made further use of the music he had written for Scott of the Antarctic, was eventually completed in 1953 and dedicated to Ernest Irving, musical director at Ealing Film Studios from 1935 until his death in 1953. It was given its first performance in Manchester on 14th January 1953 by the Hallé Orchestra under Sir John Barbirolli. The work is scored for triple woodwind, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani and a percussion section that includes triangle, cymbals, side-drum, tenor drum, bass drum, gong, bells, glockenspiel, xylophone, vibraphone, wind-machine and celesta, in addition to a harp, piano, organ and strings, with a female chorus and soprano soloist.
Each movement of the symphony is preceded, in the published score, by a quotation, the opening Andante maestoso with words from Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound:
The music that follows makes use of the title-music of the film and four thematic elements, associated in turn with the antarctic wilderness, ice, fog and the unknown. The opening theme is based on an ascending modal scale and aptly suggests the frightening grandeur of the Antarctic. This is followed by a mysterious evocation of the icy wilderness, with harp, piano and xylophone providing a background to the thematic material, then taken up by the soprano soloist and women's voices, wordless and curiously disembodied. The wind-machine is heard, an instrument the inclusion of which in a symphony aroused a measure of contemporary critical hostility, before a fragment of the principal theme leads to an episode that makes icy use of glockenspiel, vibraphone and celesta. Tremolo violins appear, in accompaniment of a motif for flutes, clarinet and cor anglais, the soprano soloist leading then towards a distant trumpet fanfare and the mounting climax and challenge of the final section.
The Scherzo is prefaced by words from Psalm CIV
Leviathan duly appears in the movement, whales and penguins evoked in a score that continues to make the fullest use of orchestral colour, used pictorially and providing a contrast to the sombre menace of the first movement.
At the heart of the symphony lies the slow movement, Landscape. Here the superscription is taken from Coleridge's Hymn before Sunrise, in the Vale of Chamouni:
The lines epitomize the scene depicted in the music, one of frozen stillness, the eerie wilderness evoked not only by the orchestral colouring, but by the slow-moving melodic material, with its incessant use of the interval of an augmented fourth. Slowly it reaches a climax in the burst of sound from the organ, which had hitherto in the movement been used to accompany with the pedals the bass line.
The Intermezzo is introduced by a quotation from John Donne's The Sun Rising:
The movement is framed by an oboe melody of warmer feeling, in music that, even so, accompanies tragedy, using some of the material designed for the self- sacrifice of Captain Oates, choosing death rather than delay his companions in their quest for the safety of their base camp.
The Epilogue takes its dominant idea from the last journal of Captain Scott:
The opening of the movement suggests the bravery of Scott and his companions, but it is in the end the icy wilderness that claims victory, heard in the return of the principal theme of the first movement, with the eerily disembodied voices of the women and the sound of the wind blowing over the icy wastes.
Vaughan Williams' s first wife, Adeline, had died in 1951, at the age of eighty. In 1953, shortly after the successful launching of the Sinfonia antartica in Manchester and in London, he married his second wife, Ursula Wood, the widow of a Royal Artillery officer, who had already provided texts for him and was later to be his biographer. The following year brought the first performance of his Tuba Concerto and a series of lectures in Canada and the United States at leading universities. By early 1955 he had completed his Eighth Symphony, a work he dedicated to Barbirolli, who conducted the first performance with the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester on 2nd May 1956. Once again Vaughan Williams makes use of a wide range of orchestral colour, with instrumentation that includes double woodwind, pairs of horns and trumpets, three trombones, timpani and a percussion section that finds room for side drum, triangle, cymbals, bass drum, vibraphone, xylophone, glockenspiel, tubular bells and, borrowed from Puccini's Turandot, tuned gongs or, in their absence, tam-tam. This is in addition to harps, celesta and strings.
The Symphony No.8 in D minor starts with a movement described in its title as Fantasia (Variazioni senza Tema), or, as the composer put it, seven variations in search of a theme. It is possible to hear in the over-all structure that of traditional sonata-form, with the third variation, marked Andante sostenuto, providing the second subject and perhaps the fourth and fifth an equivalent of the development, to be followed by the counterpart of a recapitulation in the final variations. The theme, which never appears, is heard in fragmentary form and at the outset with the colourful resources of vibraphone and celesta, as plucked strings accompany interjections from the trumpet and French horn, before the entry of the flute with a more extended melody. The second variation bursts in, to be followed by the contrasting solemnity of the hymn-like third. The oboe introduces the fourth variation, followed by the clarinet, and the fifth is an E minor Andante non troppo, The brass announce the sixth variation, marked Allregro vivace, to be followed by a variation that recalls the third derivative of the missing theme. There is a concluding coda and a brief postscript, as the woodwind recall fragments of the opening,
The second movement, Scherzo alla Marcia is scored only for wind instruments, It provides a lively contrast, a fair share of activity for the bassoons and a 618 trio section marked Andante, after which contrapuntal use is made of the returning scherzo, The Cavatina, for strings, offers a slow movement in E minor, with an intense cello melody at the start. There is secondary material, chordal and hymn-like in character, followed by a violin solo with figuration in characteristically pentatonic outline, a lark ascending and descending to introduce again the principal theme.
The symphony ends with a noisy Toccata that makes lively use of tuned percussion, at times seeming to owe more to Turandot than just the gongs. The form is that of a rondo, somewhat modified, but contrasting episodes, coloured by their instrumentation, are introduced in a cheerful and triumphant conclusion.
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
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