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8.557798 - VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Willow-Wood / The Sons of Light / Toward the Unknown Region
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958)
Willow-Wood • Toward the Unknown Region • The Sons of Light
The poems of the American Walt Whitman (1819-1892) were published in Leaves of Grass, a collected works which in successive editions over 35 years from 1855 added new poems at each appearance. Vaughan Williams may have been first introduced to Whitman by his teacher Stanford, who in his pioneering Elegiac Ode of 1884 had been the first significant British composer to respond to Whitman’s visionary non-sectarian stanzas and the freedom of his verse. Ursula Vaughan Williams tells us that from 1902 or 1903 Leaves of Grass in various editions was ‘his constant companion’. The outcome of this absorption was A Sea Symphony, gradually brought into focus over seven years and first heard in 1910. A companion piece, started later but completed sooner, was Toward the Unknown Region. Vaughan Williams remembered that when he and his friend Gustav Holst had both considered themselves ‘stuck’, they decided they should both set the same Whitman text from ‘Whispers of Heavenly Death’ and jointly select the winner. They duly awarded the palm to Vaughan Williams for this work. It was first performed at the Leeds Festival on 10th October 1907 with the composer conducting (doubtless the Festival conductor, Stanford, insisted that his pupil should conduct his own work), but when, two months later, it first appeared in London at the Royal College of Music on 10th December 1907 Stanford was on the podium.
Vaughan Williams referred to the work as a “song for chorus and orchestra” and it was announced thus at the festival. Hubert Foss has pointed out that the opening melody is almost identical to ‘Love’s Last Gift’, the final song of Vaughan Williams’s Rossetti sequence The House of Life which included his popular song ‘Silent Noon’. Percy Young has also drawn our attention to another musical motif that Vaughan Williams subsumes into his score when he looks to the psalm tune Sine Nomine ‘and reaches a blazing climax in the final bars, emblematic of the ultimate triumph of the soul’s destiny’.
The cantata Willow-Wood for baritone, women’s voices and orchestra first appeared as a scena for baritone and piano in March 1903 when it was sung by Campbell McInnes in a concert at St James’s Hall, Piccadilly. Again Vaughan Williams set words from Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s sequence The House of Life. The genesis of these early works seems to be interrelated, and Michael Kennedy has drawn our attention to a motif, also in the song ‘Love’s Last Gift’, which this time became the opening of Willow-Wood.
Vaughan Williams orchestrated Willow-Wood soon after the first performance and later added an ad.lib. women’s chorus (much of it wordless), and in this form it was performed at the Music League Festival in Liverpool on 25th September 1909, for which Breitkopf and Härtel printed the vocal score. There the soloist was the celebrated baritone Frederic Austin, and the conductor the Welsh choral conductor Harry Evans. Despite some positive press notices and the fact that the vocal score had been published, it has not been heard again until now. Yet the composer clearly retained an affection for it; even three years before his death he was attempting to get it republished.
Willow-Wood is the most substantial sequence in The House of Life, consisting of four interlinked sonnets. Commentators have attempted a number of interpretations of the richly-perfumed but opaque imagery. However, a clue is given by the poet himself in an article he wrote in 1871. Referring to the first poem only, Rossetti stated: ‘the sonnet describes a dream or trance of divided love momentarily re-united by the longing fancy; and in the imagery of the dream, the face of the beloved rises through deep dark waters to kiss the lover’. Vaughan Williams seems to have had no problem in coming to terms with the poems. His setting creates the musical equivalent of a Pre-Raphaelite tableau in which the evocative poetic images are translated into luxuriant textures. The work is a fine extended vehicle for the baritone whose widely-ranging melodic line demonstrates the composer’s close affinity with the human voice.
Willow-Wood owes much of its impact to the orchestra and the atmosphere associated with the women’s choir, especially when they vocalise, a Vaughan Williams fingerprint we are now familiar with from so many scores. Like the atmospheric recently re-discovered Nocturne (more from Whitman’s Whispers of Heavenly Death) for baritone and orchestra, it is clear Vaughan Williams already had a formidable orchestral technique which in its day, just before Debussy and Ravel were generally heard in Britain, must have been considered very advanced and possibly was not treated sympathetically by Willow-Wood’s no-nonsense first conductor.
In 1946, the Musicians Benevolent Fund, giving effect to a long-standing aspiration of the recently deceased Sir Henry Wood, revived regular annual St Cecilia Day services in London, initially at St Sepulchre’s without Newgate on Holborn Viaduct. From 1947 new works were commissioned every year, starting with the Vaughan Williams motet The Voice Out of the Whirlwind, though then with organ accompaniment. The choir assembled consisted of representatives from His Majesty’s Chapels Royal and Canterbury Cathedral, as well as St Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, underlining the festival’s standing from the outset. It was first performed at St Sepulchre’s on 22nd November 1947.
Vaughan Williams’s sturdy motet takes words from the book of Job as God speaks to Job from out of the whirlwind. He adapted the music from the ‘Galliard of the Sons of the Morning’ in scene VIII of his ‘masque for dancing’, Job, and later orchestrated it for the Leith Hill Festival, at Dorking on 16th June 1951. It is remarkable how well the words fit what was intended as a balletic score, making one wonder how far Vaughan Williams had associated words and music in the first place.
Written for the New York World’s Fair, Five Variants of ‘Dives and Lazarus’ was first performed at Carnegie Hall by the New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Adrian Boult, on 10th June 1939. The same concert saw the first performance of Sir Arthur Bliss’s barn-storming Piano Concerto, and was preceded by Walter Piston’s noisy orchestral Prelude and Fugue. The American announcer, having trouble with the pronunciation of ‘Dives’, interpreted as a single syllable, contented himself with ‘Five Variants of an old English carol’.
Vaughan Williams writes in the score: ‘These variants are not exact replicas of original tunes, but rather reminiscent of various versions in my own collection and those of others.’ While the nearest example listed by the folk-song collector Cecil Sharp was collected at the Ross Workhouse, Herefordshire, in 1921, in fact the tune can be traced to the sixteenth century as a carol sung to the words ‘Come all ye faithful Christians’ which Vaughan Williams had known from childhood. Each of the five variants was suggested by a different version of the tune.
The first British performance came on 1st November 1939 at the Colston Hall in Bristol, where the BBC Symphony Orchestra had been evacuated on the outbreak of war. Like the Tallis Fantasia it is a score which works its own magic in a large space, and touchingly, it was also played in Westminster Abbey on the interment of Vaughan Williams’s ashes on 19th September 1958.
In 1950 the viola player Bernard Shore, in his capacity as Staff Inspector of Schools in Music at the Ministry of Education, on behalf of the Schools Music Association, asked Vaughan Williams if he would write a work for a large choir of schoolchildren to be performed with orchestra in the Royal Albert Hall at their second festival in 1951. Vaughan Williams at first refused, claiming he knew nothing about writing for childrens’ choirs but then agreed, possibly realising he would have many teenagers whose voices had broken, and produced his cantata The Sons of Light, scored for four-part chorus, making no concessions to the age of his performers. The performance with a massed young people’s choir of over a thousand, and the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Adrian Boult was on 6th May 1951.
In no way does Vaughan Williams write down in this invigorating and little-known score, and surely it is only its association in the composer’s catalogue of works with a children’s choir that has made it possibly the least heard of his major works. The words were specially written by Ursula Wood, soon to become Ursula Vaughan Williams, in an ingenious spin on the creation story which starts with the passage of the sun as expressed in Greek myths, the celebratory marching character of much of the movement announced and decorated by fanfares. It ends with a contrasting night piece, as the moon crosses the sky, followed by a postlude telling of the nocturnal march of the zodiac in the heavens heralding the magical distant orchestral fading of the light. The dancing central scherzo, The Song of the Zodiac, expands on the words of the close of the previous movement, with a celebration of the signs of the zodiac, typically contrasting bucolic revels painted in riotous orchestral colour and the onomatopoeia of the waters and the autumn gales which find ready illustration in Vaughan Williams’s orchestral palette. The final movement, The Messengers of Speech, returning to the creation story as told in the heavens, now celebrates the letters of the alphabet, because as the poet puts it ‘nothing can exist until it is named’. The characteristic choral march at ‘This is the morning of the sons of light’ is surrounded by fanfares as the music ends in rejoicing.
Lewis Foreman © 2005
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