About this Recording
8.573658 - VAUGHAN WILLIAMS, R.: 49th Parallel: Prelude / Coastal Command Suite / The Story of a Flemish Farm Suite (RTÉ Concert Orchestra, Penny)

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958)
49th Parallel • The Story of a Flemish Farm • Coastal Command • Three Portraits from the England of Elizabeth


Vaughan Williams’s life is too well known to require other than the briefest of summaries, and is best told by the succession of his greatest works including nine symphonies first performed over a span of almost fifty years. Yet he wrote in all forms, and the pinnacles of his music encompass a varied repertoire: Songs of Travel (1904); On Wenlock Edge for tenor and piano quintet (1909); A Sea Symphony (1909); Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis (1910); A London Symphony (1913); the opera Hugh the Drover (1924); Job, the ballet—or rather “Masque for Dancing” as Vaughan Williams called it; the Fourth Symphony (1934); the cantata Dona Nobis Pacem (1936); the Fifth (1943) and Sixth (1947) Symphonies; the opera (Vaughan Williams said morality) The Pilgrim’s Progress (1951) and so on until the Ninth Symphony first heard in the year of his death.

Perhaps we have tended to have rather a homespun view of Vaughan Williams, and one gets the feeling that he was not unhappy with this image. In fact he was a highly educated, musically widely experienced, and remarkably sophisticated artist, a member of the Wedgewood family on his mother’s side and also related to Charles Darwin. A history graduate of Cambridge University, and pupil of Sir Charles Villiers Stanford at the Royal College of Music, he studied widely not only with English teachers such as Sir Hubert Parry, Charles Wood and Alan Gray, but on the continent with Max Bruch and Ravel (as he put it to “acquire a little French polish”). Folk-song collector, editor of the English Hymnal and later Songs of Praise, editor of Purcell, organist and conductor, he was a complete musician, and although he took longer than many to acquire his mature voice, the progress of his music over an active composing life spanning more than sixty years is quite remarkable, yet always informed by his personal voice and with something distinctive and arresting to say: he wrote in every genre from songs to opera, choral music to symphonies, chamber music to ballet. His enormous integrity and liberal humanist spirit in the tradition of Sir Hubert Parry, his mentor, give him a commanding position in our music.

From the first sound films in the 1930s, the cinema attracted many of the leading composers of the day, particularly in Great Britain, and composers such as Arthur Benjamin, Arthur Bliss and Benjamin Britten found themselves in demand, in Britten’s case for feature films, with the experimental GPO Film Unit, for which he produced innovative scores for small forces, of which Night Mail is the best known. Bliss made an enormous impact with his striking and flamboyant score for Things To Come, which in its day gave film music as a genre an enormous step forward. During and soon after the war most of the leading British composers of the day wrote music for films, including Walton, Rawsthorne, Frankel, Lambert, Bax and John Ireland, generating a wide following among a public that flocked to the cinema on a regular basis. At the time film music was not highly rated by professional musicians. Even when Constant Lambert wrote in support of the film score he felt he had to say: “film music should not be despised because it is inevitably more ephemeral and less important than symphonic and operatic music”.

Ralph Vaughan Williams composed his first film music in 1940–41—for the film 49th Parallel—and his last, a group of songs for voice and oboe, for the film A Vision of William Blake, in 1957, eight months before he died. Over the intervening fifteen years he wrote music for no fewer than eleven films, the music for one of them being soon developed into his seventh symphony the Sinfonia Antartica: so, unlike many of his contemporaries, Vaughan Williams viewed film music as something more than ephemera. Indeed he protested against the habit of many directors for only thinking of the music after the film had been shot, arguing that the various arts involved in making a film should come together from the beginning. He pointed out that film music can be written in two ways—by every action, word, gesture or incident being punctuated in sound—or as he remarked “to ignore the details and intensify the spirit of the whole situation by a continuous stream of music”, confessing that he was incapable of doing otherwise.

Vaughan Williams’ films were: 49th Parallel (it opened at the Odeon Leicester Square on 8th October 1941); Coastal Command (Plaza London, 16th October 1942); The People’s Land (17th March 1943); The Story of a Flemish Farm (Leicester Square Theatre, 12th August 1943; Stricken Peninsular (October 1945); The Loves of Joanna Godden (16th June 1947); Scott of the Antarctic (19th November 1948); Dim Little Island March (1949); Bitter Springs (Adelaide, South Australia, June 1950, London, 10th July 1950); The England of Elizabeth (March 1957); and The Vision of William Blake (10th October 1958).

49th Parallel was called The Invaders when it was released in the United States, and thus gives the clue to its subject. A U-Boat crew is stranded in Canada and tries to escape to the United States. This anti-Nazi film by Michael Powell after a story by Emeric Pressburger (a vintage team that produced such notable films as Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes, as well as that evocative war-time curiosity A Canterbury Tale) fielded some big guns with a cast headed by Laurence Olivier, Raymond Massey, Eric Portman and Leslie Howard. It is memorable for many striking images, moments of Hitchcockian suspense, and for Vaughan Williams’ score. The closing sequence when the remaining and most bigoted Nazi of all escapes across the railway bridge at Niagara but is sent back by an ambivalent railman on a procedural pretext, has edge of seat tension. The Prelude which was one of Vaughan Williams’ first patriotic war-time pieces—quickly issued on a ten-inch 78 and also set to words as the choral song The New Commonwealth—distills the spirit of the opening commentary, spoken as the camera pans over the distant grandeur of the Canadian Rockies: “Across the great American Continent there runs a line drawn not by bloodshed and strife but by the common consent of the free peoples of two great countries. It is not a barrier—it is a meeting-place—it is the 49th parallel—the largest undefended frontier in the world.”

Coastal Command was a fine example of that wartime genre, informed by the experimental work of pre-war film makers, in which dramatised documentaries used real people rather than actors to play the various parts, a cast that did it surprisingly well, only one or two showing momentary stiffness. It is a memorable film, notable for fine black and white photography, and magnificent air shots, held together by Vaughan Williams’ remarkable score. But possibly the most memorable characters in the film are the planes: those wonderful sea-planes. What unfortunate quirk of design history caused sea-planes to be forgotten, for in many ways they were the ideal compromise between aircraft and the demands of modem day airports? The characteristic profiles of the Catalinas (high wing with two engines) and Sunderlands (with four engines) adds to the romance of this evocative film.

The pre-war GPO Film Unit became the Crown Film Unit at the beginning of the war. The GPO Film Unit had become celebrated for the use of leading young composers. Under the visionary influence of their music director Muir Mathieson, the Crown Film Unit employed the leading composers of the day. J.B. Holmes, the director of Coastal Command is also remembered for the film Merchant Seamen with music by Constant Lambert. The Crown Film Unit made this film when it was thought politic to promote the work of the until then unsung heroes of Coastal Command, an operation that guarded a huge area from the air, from the arctic to the coast of West Africa, and the Baltic to a thousand miles out in the Atlantic, with ceaseless, patient, often humdrum patrols. In the film the music was performed appositely by the RAF Orchestra conducted by Muir Mathieson, who was instrumental, almost single handedly, in developing the whole forties movement of music for the movies in the United Kingdom.

The film opens with the Sunderland flying-boat at its mooring at Port Ferry Bay in the Hebrides. The action falls into two parts: first we follow the Sunderland on convoy patrol in the Atlantic, ending with the sinking of a U-Boat by its relieving Catalina. Then the much longer story of the search—now in the North Sea for the German surface raider Düsseldorf and its attack and eventual sinking. The final section follows the damaged Sunderland’s journey home—it has been hit by flak—an intervening dogfight, and eventual arrival at base. The film ends as the Sunderland takes off for its next mission, this time in West Africa.

The romance of the take-off and landing of a flying-boat, particularly the Sunderland, with a crest of foam either side and the skip-skip before it finally gets off, like some awkward albatross transformed from an ungainly elephant on the ground into a soaring wonder of infinite grace, is fully exploited in this film, and not only those who have seen the real thing will be spellbound. Vaughan Williams’ music soaring with the spirit of the watcher, underlines the romance of this most graceful and romantic of war machines.

The suite does not follow the sequence of the film exactly. In the movement The Hudsons take off from Iceland we see three flights of Hudsons, each of three aircraft (twin-engined bombers with distinctive double tailfins) take off to bomb the German raider Düsseldorf, which the sea-planes are shadowing. The loading and taxiing and general airport business on the ground is evoked by Vaughan Williams in his most rumbustious mood. The mountain backcloth of the early part of the flight is underlined by Vaughan Williams’ contrasting lyrical invention and the wonderful moment when the engine noise which counterpoints much of the music throughout the soundtrack ceases, leaving a high held violin line and gentle fragmentary theme on clarinet.

The Dawn Patrol movement, the most extended part of the suite, comes from a magnificent extended passage as the Sunderland prepares to observe the damaged German cruiser, throttling back and appearing from the clouds over the raider.

Written as it was in 1942, there are resonances of Vaughan Williams’ music composed over the previous ten or fifteen years, moments reminiscent of the Fourth Symphony rubbing shoulders with the Piano Concerto and Job. The suite at first extracted by Muir Mathieson consisted of seven movements, but after a broadcast in 1942, that was quickly forgotten. Here Christopher Palmer has added an additional movement, U-Boat Alert, taken from the earlier convoy sequence of the film. This is a fine score showing Vaughan Williams responding to the film in characteristic manner. Ken Cameron, the recording engineer on the film was speaking for the whole Crown Unit team when he wrote: “we knew that here was something great, something, indeed, finer and more alive than any music we had ever had before. On the rare occasions when the music was slightly too long or too short to match the existing picture, then it was the visual material which suffered the mutilation. The music for Coastal Command is as VW composed it. It is, in fact, the picture.”

The Story of a Flemish Farm was written in 1943 and the film was first seen in August that year. The concert suite was first given at a Promenade Concert just after the end of the war on 31st July 1945 when the music was conducted by its composer. It has rarely been heard since.

The story is based on a true episode, and dates from 1940. When the Germans invade Belgium during the second week of May 1940, two men escape via France to England. Just before one of them is killed he explains that the squadron’s flag—of the Belgian airforce—is buried on his farm. Later men go to retrieve it and bring it to England. Cornered by the enemy, the major gives himself up so that the others might get away. Without the adventure of the story and the images of the film, some of the movements may not make a lot of sense as drama, and the symbolism of the flag may not, fifty years on, engender as much sympathy today as it did at the time. Yet Vaughan Williams’ evocative score has a haunting atmosphere and its own particular resonance, and does not need the crutch of the screen to make its effect. In a movement such as Dawn in the Barn, Vaughan Williams is a master of atmosphere with delicate tendrils of evocative folk-inflected instrumental lines, and the soaring solo violin part is pure Vaughan Williams as is the throat-catching entry of the full orchestra that follows. The hushed music of the closing passage of this sequence has more than an overtone of the Sixth Symphony, and indeed the composer has told us that discarded themes from this score were later the germs from which the Symphony in E minor grew. Here however it wells to an affirmative climax and fades to an utterly personal quiet texture as haunted quiet horn calls fade over soft timpani rolls, like the faintest murmur of distant thunder.

The Sixth Symphony and even the remote vastness of the Sinfonia Antartica haunt the other big movement, The Dead Man’s Kit, with its haunted textures, and Sibelian soft drum-rolls and tremolando strings. It is a movement whose occasional non-sequiturs are only explained in the context of the action—in particular the brief sudden ceremonial trumpet-calls to action. In contrast the light dancing music of In a Belgian Cafe is remarkably reminiscent of some of Sibelius’s light music.

Vaughan Williams had composed another five film scores before he came to our last example. At around the time of the Coronation in 1953 and for several years afterwards, it was customary to talk of “a second Elizabethan age” and compare the vigour of the England of Elizabeth Tudor, with the spirit of post-war reconstruction. This celebratory frame of mind was clearly behind British Transport Film’s colour “short” The England of Elizabeth for which Vaughan Williams wrote the music in the autumn of 1955. It was recorded in January 1956 and the film was first seen in March 1957 at London’s Leicester Square Theatre.

The film consisted of images of buildings, paintings, artefacts and books, with a commentary spoken by the actor Alec Clunes, with appropriate sound effects. Vaughan Williams’ score is almost continuous, and welds it together remarkably effectively, even if to ’nineties ears the total effect is somewhat stilted. The film opens with shots of London streets while Clunes remarks “… in these streets Shakespeare walked…” and then asks us to “spur your quick fancy to jump the wide centuries” and soon tells us of “new kind of Englishmen” … “the great blue water sailors whom the narrow seas could not confine…”. The explorer is Sir Francis Drake. Then follows the poet—Shakespeare, of course. Finally Queen Elizabeth herself and as the Armada is dispersed the commentator tells us “the realm stood secure” as the music takes a triumphal turn.

During the Shakespeare movement we hear a couple of sixteenth-century tunes familiar for Shakespeare’s words “The wind and the rain” and “It was a lover and his lass”. Michael Kennedy has pointed out that the opening largo of the Poet movement includes a theme which had been first written in the early tone poem The Solent, and was later used in A Sea Symphony in 1910. It would be used again three years later in his Ninth Symphony. While it has to be admitted that the film itself has dated, Vaughan Williams’ score, shorn of its period trappings, has a vigorous independent life of its own: it succeeds all too well in evoking the first Elizabethan age, and reminding us of the springtime of the second.

© 2016 Lewis Foreman

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