Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Ralph Vaughan Williams: a commemoration

Today is the 150th anniversary of the birth of this great composer, so it seems an appropriate time to pay tribute to his work, especially as it tends to get left out of histories of 20th century music that aren't intended as exhaustive surveys.

The problem is that RVW wasn't a radical revolutionary, nor did he have weird psychiatric ticks, the kinds of things that make composers easy to write about. He was a level-headed man who lived an ordinary uneventful life (aside from his mistress, and that's quite a story) and who simply wrote some great music.

Two things you need to know about RVW to start with: first, his first name is pronounced Rafe. "Any other pronunciation used to infuriate him," writes his widow, who really ought to know. Strangely, I've met a few people who remember this backwards, and are convinced that he hated it.

Second, his last name is "Vaughan Williams." Two barrels, no hyphen; file him under V. Anybody who knows people named Nielsen Hayden should have no trouble with that. But he's usually just called RVW.

RVW, like Anton Bruckner, was a late-blooming composer. He didn't hit his stride and start writing pieces for which he's remembered until he was in his mid-30s, around 1905-10. But then he remained active and fluent right up to the end. He was 85 when he died in 1958, less than a year after completing his Ninth Symphony.

His music is intensely English in a 'rooted in the landscape' way, as Tolkien's writing is. This though he was not a countryman but a Londoner by nature. (This though he was born in a Gloucestershire village - he didn't live there for long - and had a home out in Surrey after his first wife became unable to handle city staircases.) This landscape feel puts him in the same category as other pastoral nationalists like Grieg and Dvorak, but a lot of British composers of more continental bent didn't approve. He and his compatriots (Holst, Butterworth) were mocked as "cowpat" composers.

Actually there is a strong continental, particularly French, strain to RVW's music. He studied with Ravel for the purpose of acquiring a little polish, and it stuck. Compare his more pastoral works with those of Delius, on whom the French scent is more obvious, and you'll see.

But the English was his strongest rooting point. He edited collections of Renaissance-era compositions of his country, some of which he used in his music, and he traveled the countryside collecting folk songs, some of which he also used in his music. Plenty of composers of other countries have done the same without being called "cowpat" composers. Nobody would call Bartok that, and he was one of the great folksong collectors of all time. I guess it's because his music wasn't as pastoral as RVW's.

But then, again there's a mistaken generalization. Vaughan Williams's music was not all pastoral, far from it. Though he's best remembered for some shorter pieces which sometimes are: The Lark Ascending, a short violin concerto inspired by a poem by George Meredith; and the Fantasia on Greensleeves, an even briefer simple setting of two folksongs. The third standard RVW work is a bit different: the Tallis Fantasia is a richly contrapuntal fantasy for strings based on a Renaissance hymn tune. It has the reverberating quality of a massive cathedral.

But you can hear the variety of his work by listening to his nine symphonies. These were only numbered starting with No. 8, whose digit retrospectively numbered all its predecessors, previously all known only by title or, if they didn't have one, key. I don't know any other composer who did that.

First was A Sea Symphony, a huge choral-orchestral work setting poems of Walt Whitman. It's amazing how RVW could turn Whitman's choppy, blocky poetry into something lyrical. The slow movement, "On the beach at night alone," is my candidate for the greatest single vocal-orchestral work of the 20C.

Second was A London Symphony, alternately jaunty and impressionistic, with some of that Ravel polish to it. This was the first of his symphonies I got to know. Then A Pastoral Symphony, oh boy, cue the cowpats: but listen to it, because it's frequently tough and wiry, pastoral but not soft or gentle.

The Fourth through Sixth have no titles, no programs, but they form a trilogy that - though the composer strongly denied it - is often seen as a portrait of modern times. As a set, this is his masterwork. The Fourth can be dissonant, tough, even brutal. "I don't know if I like it," the composer said, "but it is what I meant." Although I've heard performances which bring out the jaunty side reminiscent of the Second. Written in 1935, it's seen as a warning of WW2 to come. The Fifth dates from during the war, and has a serenity to it, and also a sure depth, that suggests a hope for post-war peace. And the Sixth is odd and creepy, especially the finale which is marked unbroken pianissimo, though few dare to play it that way. Is that the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust?

The last three are more miscellaneous. No. 7, the Sinfonia Antartica, is based on music for a film on Robert Scott's explorations. It's wintry but evocative, and is some of my favorite RVW. No. 8 is brusque and jaunty again, but succinct and more lighthearted than any of its predecessors. It has one movement just for strings and one just for winds. The Ninth is median in tone, somewhere between the Third and Fifth and the Fourth and Sixth, but I find it difficult: it's the only one I've never really absorbed.

RVW didn't write much chamber or piano music, but there's lots more choral and orchestral work to hear. I'd like to point to his opera The Pilgrim's Progress, which I've actually seen staged: nothing much happens but the music is beautiful, and that's what I want. Then there's Job: A Masque for Dancing, which dates midway between the Third and Fourth Symphonies and manages to sound like both of them, quite an achievement.

You can find a lot of this work by searching, so I'll leave you to it. Happy birthday, Rafe.

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