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8.557114 - VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: On Wenlock Edge / Five Mystical Songs (English Song, Vol. 3)
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Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Five Mystical Songs • On Wenlock Edge

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 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.

His first wife, Adeline, had died in 1951, at the age of eighty. In 1953 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. Vaughan Williams died in 1958. The death of one who had long seemed a permanent feature of English music was widely mourned and his ashes were later laid to rest in Westminster Abbey.

The maturer songs of Vaughan Williams span a period from the 1890s until the end of his life. His setting of It was a Lover and his Lass from Shakespeare’s As You Like It, with its running accompaniment, was written in 1922 and is for two voices, as in the play itself, where it is sung by two of the banished duke’s pages. The arrangement of The Lawyer for singer and solo violin is one of two English folk-songs from 1935. It is coupled with Searching for Lambs, also included here.

Tennyson’s The splendour falls on castle walls may now be more familiar from Benjamin Britten’s evocative setting in his Serenade for tenor, horn and strings. The version by Vaughan Williams dates from about 1896 and was published in 1905. Although the horn-call harmonies suggest the bugles of the text, this setting is in general more gently evocative. The Watermill, with its mill-wheel turning in the piano accompaniment, is one of four settings of poems by Fredegond Shove, one of Adeline’s bridesmaids at her wedding. The songs were written in 1922 and first performed three years later.

Tired, with words by Ursula Vaughan Williams, was published posthumously in a group of Four Last Songs. Written in 1956, the song is among the most moving and effective that Vaughan Williams wrote, music and words magically united. It is followed by Silent Noon, written in 1903 and included in the 1904 cycle of six settings of poems by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Among the most effective of his songs, Silent Noon evokes countryside in summer.

Vaughan Williams retained a particular liking for the verse of Walt Whitman, whose poems served as the basis of the Sea Symphony. In 1925 he published settings of three poems by Whitman, the gentle Nocturne in strong contrast with the following Joy, Shipmate, Joy!, with poet and composer at their most ebullient.

The Four Hymns for tenor, viola and piano date from 1914, commissioned for Worcester, and first performed after the war, in 1920. The first of the set, Lord! Come away!, a setting of words by the seventeenth-century divine Bishop Jeremy Taylor, is coupled here with the third, a setting of a devotional poem from the same period by the Catholic poet Richard Crashaw. Both songs seem to be forerunners of Britten’s remarkable settings of the Holy Sonnets of John Donne.

Although Vaughan Williams, in spite of his early family background, was an agnostic, this did not prevent his effective settings of verse of overt religious inspiration. His Five Mystical Songs, settings of poems by George Herbert, offer varied possibilities of performance, for baritone, optional chorus and orchestra, as here for baritone and piano, or for baritone piano and string quintet. Written in 1911, they were first heard in that year in their fuller version at the Three Choirs Festival in Worcester. As elsewhere, the composer responds to the words, evoking their devotional spirit in holy simplicity and with an inner understanding, a foretaste of work to come. The set culminates in the final Antiphon, a hymn of praise.

On Wenlock Edge was completed in 1909, a setting of six poems by A. E. Housman for tenor, piano, and string quartet. The cycle was later arranged for tenor and orchestra. The work was first performed in London at the Aeolian Hall in November, with the tenor Gervase Elwes. During the period of its composition Vaughan Williams had his meetings with Ravel, and there are occasional suggestions of contemporary French influence. Particularly moving, as in settings by other composers, is the poignant third of the group, Is my team ploughing?. The tragic mood is broken by the following Oh, when I was in love with you, while Bredon Hill captures nostalgically the opening heat of summer and the tolling bells, to be transformed to the icy cold of winter and death, and finally to a calmer optimism. The last song, Clun, brings an air of final resignation and tranquillity.

Dirge for Fidele is a setting of the song Fear no more the heat o’ the sun from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline. For two voices, it was published in 1922, but has been dated to the 1890s. It breathes an air of serenity and optimism, in its apparent simplicity, a perfect ending to an anthology by one of the most English of English composers.

Keith Anderson

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