About this Recording
8.557643 - VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Songs of Travel / The House of Life (English Song, Vol. 14)

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958)
Songs of Travel • The House of Life • Four Poems by Fredegond Shove

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 significantly, 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. 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 early songs of Vaughan Williams reflect the contemporary interest in a form to which Parry and Stanford had given much encouragement. Songs of Travel, settings of poems by Robert Louis Stevenson, had its first performance in 1904 and was published in two volumes in 1905 and 1907, with the ninth song only appearing posthumously, in 1960. The work, a unified song-cycle, in spite of the method of its first publication, opens with the robust marching bass of The Vagabond, probably the best known of the set. Let beauty awake has an accompaniment pattern of arpeggios, with the pace quickening for The Roadside Fire. Youth and Love brings echoes of the first song of the cycle and, at its climax, of The Roadside Fire. In Dreams introduces a more chromatic element into the vocal line, with its syncopated accompaniment, and there is a certain radiance about The Infinite Shining Heavens, gently accompanied by arpeggiated chords. Whither must I wander?, first published separately in 1902, returns to the key of the first song and is followed by Bright is the ring of words, accompanied by boldly resonant chords, supported at first by octaves in the lowest register of the keyboard. It is left to the posthumously published I have trod the upward and the downward slope to form a summary and conclusion, with its references to The Vagabond and Bright is the ring of words.

The House of Life, settings of six sonnets by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, was published and first performed in 1904 in the Bechstein Hall recital that included Songs of Travel. The poetic language of Rossetti is more elusive than Stevenson’s, reflecting Preraphaelite sensibilities that had a particular contemporary appeal. The first song, Love-Sight, ends with an extended postlude in which thematic material is further developed. Silent Noon, which had been performed in an earlier recital, is accompanied by chords of rich sonority, then shifting in key and pace, before a brief passage of quasi recitative and a return to the mood of the opening. Love’s Minstrels allows more dramatic depiction of elements in the text, while Heart’s Haven makes a less immediate effect. Death in Love opens with a summons to attention, a figure that returns and is echoed in the final postlude. The cycle ends with Love’s Last Gift, in which the composer responds sensitively to the verbal imagery, with a recurrent figure that leaves a familiar fingerprint.

Linden Lea, a setting of words by the Dorset dialect poet William Barnes, remains the best known of all the songs of Vaughan Williams. It was written in 1901 and appeared in the first number of The Vocalist, on the recommendation of Stanford, to be heard in London for the first time in 1902. As with all these early songs, however, the settings lack the wit and facility of Britten, with accompaniments that perhaps reflect the relative ability of Vaughan Williams as a pianist.

The settings by Vaughan Williams of Four Poems by Fredegond Shove, published and first performed in 1925, mark a considerable development in technique and maturity. Fredegond Shove was the wife of a Cambridge professor of economics, daughter of Frederic Maitland, professor at Cambridge of the laws of England, and niece of the composer’s wife Adeline. The cold desolation of Motion and Stillness is suggested in the open fifths of the accompaniment, contrasted with the full triads that provide a pattern of accompaniment for Four Nights, with its passing of the seasons. The narrative of death in The New Ghost, more Freund Hein than grim reaper, opens with a passage for unaccompanied voice, with the piano using the upper register, and then, at the end, ascending into a far distant land. The group of songs ends with The Water Mill, for which the accompaniment depicts the turn of the millwheel and other homely details of the poem, illustrative treatment largely absent from the early songs.

Keith Anderson

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