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8.557276 - VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Symphony No. 4 / Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1 / Flos Campi
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Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958)
Symphony No. 4 • Flos Campi • Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1

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. By now he had begun to make a reputation for himself as a composer, not least with the first performance in 1910 of A Sea Symphony, setting words by Walt Whitman, and his Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis in the same year. At the outbreak of war in 1914 he enlisted at once in the Royal Army Medical Corps as a private. This was also the year of the London Symphony and of his rhapsodic work for violin and orchestra, The Lark 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 place 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.

The immediate cause that led to the start of work on Symphony No.4 was a newspaper article describing a ‘modern’ European symphony, and Vaughan Williams continued work on it intermittently over the following years. At first, as always, he was able to rely on the advice and support of his friend Gustav Holst, who died in 1934 and was never to hear the finished work. The first performance took place in April 1935, given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Adrian Boult. It had a mixed reception. Some found in it a reflection of the disturbed conditions of the time, others were critical of what seemed a break with the composer’s earlier style. Vaughan Williams himself, as so often with his new compositions, expressed mixed feelings about it. In his A Musical Autobiography he admits to borrowing the opening of the symphony from Beethoven’s Symphony No.9, but has no regrets, stressing that a composer should make sure that what he writes is the right thing to say at that moment. He was later to insist that whatever he had written in the new symphony was certainly what he had meant at the time. The symphony was dedicated to Arnold Bax.

The disturbingly stark opening of the symphony leads to an appassionato second subject. The movement eventually reaches tranquillity in the final Lento, discord now resolved. Muted brass introduce the Andante moderato, followed by the woodwind and then strings, with a violin melody over the plucked notes of the lower strings. Solo oboe, clarinet and bassoon emerge, melodic lines contrapuntally interwoven, with increased prominence for the interval of a fourth, first heard at the outset. After a tense climax the music unwinds, its Molto tranquillo conclusion led by the flute. The Scherzo offers immediate contrast with its jaunty rhythms, answered in the Trio, by the theme for bassoon, double bassoon and tuba, before the Scherzo resumes its course. The Finale follows without a break, bringing a brass marching accompaniment, and, as in the other movements, motivic reminiscences. The triumphant progress is interrupted by a characteristic hymn-like passage for the strings, before the impetus is restored, leading to the fugal epilogue, its subject announced by trombones and tuba. This is developed, together with other motivic elements from the movement, before the whole ends in a return to the opening of the whole work.

Vaughan Williams’s first Norfolk Rhapsody, based on two folk-songs, was written in 1906 and first performed in the same year, later to be revised. Two further rhapsodies, written in the following year, were withdrawn. The sustained notes of muted violins are punctuated by flute and oboe, before the rhapsodic entry of the clarinet, followed by the solo viola, ‘freely as if improvising’. The first theme is The Captain’s Apprentice to which the lively Bold Young Apprentice provides a contrast. The work ends in the tranquillity of the Norfolk countryside, where it had started.

Scored for solo viola, small orchestra and wordless chorus, the suite Flos Campi (The Flower of the Field) was completed and first performed in 1925, with the great viola-player Lionel Tertis, to whom it is dedicated. The superscriptions to each of the six movements, taken from The Song of Songs, indicate the source of the composition, however secular their interpretation. The first movement is prefaced by the words Sicut Lilium inter spinas, sic amica mea inter filias … Fulcite me floribus, stipate me malis, quia amore langueo (As the lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters … Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples; for I am sick of love). It will be noticed that the words of the Authorised Version of the Bible do not accurately translate the Vulgate, but the published score includes both versions. Oboe and viola intertwine in the bitonal opening, after which flute and viola join together, before the music moves on to a climax, with the entry of the chorus. Jam enim hiems transiit; imber abiit, et recessit; Flores apparuerunt in terra nostra, Tempus putationis advenit; Vox turturis audita est in terra nostra (For lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone, the flowers appear on the earth, the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land) is a movement of rhapsodic meditation on the coming of spring. A viola cadenza is continued into the third movement, Quaesivi quem diligit anima mea; quaesivi illum, et non inveni … ‘Adjuro vos, filiae Jerusalem, si inveneritis dilectum meum, ut nuntietis et quia amore langueo’ … ‘Quo abiit dilectus tuus, O pulcherrima mulierum? Quo declinavit dilectus tuus? et quaeremus eum tecum.’ (I sought him whom my soul loveth, but I found him not … ‘I charge you, O daughters of Jerusalem, if ye find my beloved, that ye tell him that I am sick of love’ … ‘Whither is thy beloved gone, O thou fairest among women? Whither is thy beloved turned aside? that we may seek him with thee). En lectulum Solomonis sexaginta fortes ambiunt … omnes tenentes gladios, et ad bellum doctissimi (Behold his bed (palanquin), which is Solomon’s, three score valiant men are about it … They all hold swords, being expert in war) introduces a march, suiting the text. The fifth movement, Revertere, revertere Sulamitis! Revertere, revertere ut intueamur te … Quam pulchri sunt gressus tui in calceamentis, filia principis (Return, return, O Shulamite, Return, return, that we may look upon thee … How beautiful are thy feet with shoes, O Prince’s daughter), brings a passionate climax, until finally, with Pone me ut signaculum super cor tuum (Set me as a seal upon thy heart) the viola offers a resolution of great simplicity, a theme taken up by the orchestra, leading to the return of the opening, on which the seal is set in conclusion.

Keith Anderson

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