About this Recording
6.110053 - VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Fantasias / Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1 / In the Fen Country
English  German 

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Fantasia on Greensleeves • Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis

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 folkmusic 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 by 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 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 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 remained active until his death in 1958.

In the Fen Country, described as a Symphonic Impression, was completed in April 1904 and revised in 1905 and 1907, to be given its first performance in London in 1909 under Sir Thomas Beecham. Vaughan Williams revised the work again in 1935 and it was published in 1969. Opening with a characteristic melody for the solo cor anglais, the work reflects the composer’s current interest in folk-music, which helps to form the shape of the thematic material. The cor anglais is followed by a solo viola, an instrument that adds the final bars to music that suggests something of the course that the composer’s music was to take.

The Norfolk Rhapsody, first heard in a London performance by the Queen’s Hall Orchestra under Henry Wood in 1906, was revised in 1914. It makes use of three folk-songs collected by Vaughan Williams in King’s Lynn, The Captain’s Apprentice, A Bold Young Sailor and On Board a Ninety-Eight, and was the first of three such works, although the other two were later withdrawn. The first of the three folk-songs is introduced by a solo viola, freely as if improvising, after lightly sketched evocations of the Norfolk landscape, and it is this theme that serves as a frame-work for the other folk-songs, introduced respectively by the cor anglais and bassoons and cellos. The Captain’s Apprentice returns as the work draws to a close, ending in the countryside where it had started.

The Concerto Grosso was written for the 21st anniversary of the Rural Music Schools Association in 1950 and first heard at the Royal Albert Hall in London in November of that year, played by a string orchestra of some four hundred players. The work was designed for three levels of technical skill, a concertino of twenty or so skilled players, a tutti for those who could play in third position and manage simple double stops, and an ad lib part, including sections that only called for open strings. The imposing Intrada is followed by a humorous Burlesca Ostinata, starting with open strings. There is a relatively subtle use of accompanying open strings in the Sarabande, hints of folk-song in the Scherzo and a rousing March to start the last movement.

The opera Sir John in Love, based on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor and incorporating folksongs, where these seemed appropriate, had been completed in 1928. The Fantasia on Greensleeves, drawn from the introduction to the third act of the opera, was arranged in 1934 by Ralph Greaves for string orchestra, harp and one or two optional flutes. The work starts with the familiar melody, used to frame a lively contrasting folk-dance.

Vaughan Williams conducted the first performance of his Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis at the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester in 1910. He revised the work in 1913 and 1919. The Fantasia takes a theme by the Elizabethan composer Thomas Tallis that Vaughan Williams had included in his own English Hymnal, and is scored for double string orchestra and string quartet. It marks the true emergence of the composer’s own distinctive musical voice. After a short introductory phrase, the opening motif of the theme is heard in the lower strings, before it is stated in full, to be repeated in more elaborate form, followed by a return to the opening. A solo viola introduces a melody derived from the original theme, then taken up by the first violin, and treated by the quartet more or less in the imitative contrapuntal manner of an Elizabethan fantasia. The music moves forward to a passage for the solo violin and, in counterpoint to it, the solo viola, delicately accompanied by the orchestra, skilfully deployed. The solo violin is heard again, ascending to the height, as the coda draws to a close.

Keith Anderson

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