When encountering an unfamiliar composition by Ralph Vaughan Williams, I discover myself asking the identical questions: the place have I heard this earlier than? Do I do know this already or am I merely imagining it?
Clear solutions are supplied by Eric Saylor’s groundbreaking biography, launched to coincide with Vaughan Williams’s a hundred and fiftieth birthday. Saylor approaches his topic with contemporary ears and a number of totally researched and well-rounded insights that look set to vary the discourse surrounding the composer in his anniversary yr.
Writing with readability of imaginative and prescient is hard given how embedded Vaughan Williams is in British musical tradition. He wore many hats in his time: symphonic composer, choral society conductor, folksong collector, hymn-tune compiler. Vaughan Williams loved a mix of recognition and status unrivalled by lots of his British contemporaries, and he stays the nation’s favorite composer, even when others might need a stronger declare to be Britain’s greatest.
Familiarity emanates from Vaughan Williams’s musical language; its mix of people modality, references to the English Renaissance and austere chromaticism creates a detailed dialog between current and previous. Vaughan Williams as soon as remarked that he didn’t bear in mind whether or not he had composed a bit or simply remembered it. “I’ve not had a brand new musical concept since I used to be 30,” he would later inform the conductor Christopher Finzi.
However as Saylor’s new biography exhibits, Vaughan Williams was actively concerned in constructing a convention for the long run – he did greater than merely draw on the previous. The place Saylor describes Vaughan Williams’s work amassing folks songs as preservationist and promotional, Vaughan Williams’s “revivalist and reformist” compilation of the New English Hymnal (confining his most hated Victorian hymns to an appendix nicknamed the Chamber of Horrors and changing them with Tallis, Purcell, Gibbons and a whole lot of up to date items – together with a few of his personal) demonstrates his inclination to look afresh at traditions in any other case taken with no consideration. He was, in line with earlier biographer Michael Kennedy, “that extraordinarily English product – the pure nonconformist with a conservative regard for the perfect custom”. However regard doesn’t essentially equate to reverence – a key duality Vaughan Williams battled with as he labored to search out his personal compositional voice and his personal English custom to situate it in.
In some ways the editorial strategy taken by Vaughan Williams when compiling the hymnal – wanting past obtained notions of style – was mirrored in his music, which was criticised after the second world warfare. As Saylor notes, a brand new era of composers and critics “took difficulty with the music and the aesthetic values that he had lengthy promoted, equivalent to his continued advocacy for the relevance of folksong and a strong tradition of ‘nationwide music’ for England”.
So why are we nonetheless speaking about Vaughan Williams? For one, the character of his music makes it ripe for rediscovery. The composer’s curiosity in daring instrumentation and his uncommon strategy to type imply that many works lie exterior customary performing repertoire. Take the Sinfonia Antartica for orchestra, voices, a battery of percussion and a wind machine the weirdly stunning Flos Campi for viola, choir and ensemble; or the extreme one-act opera Riders to the Sea, a tough work to stage due to its brevity. As Saylor notes, even perennial favorite The Lark Ascending doesn’t actually know what it’s: it’s extra virtuosic than its title – “Romance for violin and orchestra” – may counsel, however it’s not fairly a concerto and it shuns an extra-musical narrative (although it’s accompanied by George Meredith’s eponymous poem from 1881). As with all artists who flout the boundaries of conference, unpacking Vaughan Williams’s work is an extended and sophisticated course of – and there’s nonetheless some progress to be made.
He was born in 1872 into a lifetime of difficult privilege: “Although comfy with the gentry, they [the Williams family] weren’t of it,” Saylor says. A radical whereas at Charterhouse college, Vaughan Williams embraced socialism whereas learning at Cambridge. He later grew to become influenced by the concepts William Morris, which balanced idealism with pragmatism and helped form his political outlook. Although disagreeing with the pacifist beliefs and trenchantly leftwing politics of fellow composers Alan Bush and Michael Tippett, Vaughan Williams publicly supported their proper to voice their political views. He chaired the Residence Workplace Committee for the Launch of Interned Alien Musicians in 1940 regardless of expressing considerations in regards to the influence an inflow of Austrian and German musicians might have on English musical tradition.
As a younger pupil on the Royal School of Music in London, Vaughan Williams idolised his instructor Hubert Parry, who instructed him: “Write choral music as befits an Englishman and a democrat.” After learning with Parry and Charles Stanford in London, Vaughan Williams went to review in continental Europe, first with Max Bruch in Berlin in 1897 and later in Paris with a younger Maurice Ravel. Chief amongst his influences was Gustav Holst, a detailed pal with whom Vaughan Williams shared frank, important discussions as each composers labored in the direction of discovering their respective voices.
The works composed by Vaughan Williams between the flip of the century and the primary world warfare have come to symbolize the favored notion of the composer at the moment. They embody The Lark Ascending, his Sea Symphony (No 1) and London Symphony (No 2), his choral piece In direction of the Unknown Area and Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. Described by Gloucester Cathedral’s then-organist Herbert Brewer as “queer work by an odd fellow from Chelsea”, the Fantasia was one other unusually scored piece, this time for double string orchestra with string quartet.
For Vaughan Williams and his compatriots, the arrival of warfare led to whole change, and the composer, then in his 40s, enlisted within the Territorial Power, ultimately ending up as an ambulance driver in France. The Pastoral Symphony (No 3), together with the Mass in G Minor (1921) and The Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains (1922), grew to become key works within the idiom of Twentieth-century pastoralism, however Vaughan Williams’s return to lush sounds was “no easy and joyful launch”, as his second spouse Ursula Vaughan Williams would later emphasise. Saylor outlines the aesthetic conundrum Vaughan Williams confronted at this level: “find out how to remodel the wartime trauma that he skilled into an expression of horrible magnificence which may assist make a world stuffed with loss bearable as soon as extra”.
An uncomplicated studying of that phenomenon shortly grew to become a handy manner of hurdling its varied existential and aesthetic quandaries. However that serialist Elisabeth Lutyens is remembered extra for her “cowpat music” critique (attacking the pastoral idiom favoured by Vaughan Williams, Holst and Arnold Bax) than for any of her personal music additionally exhibits the difficulties post-tonal music has confronted in gaining a decisive foothold in British musical tradition. Within the routine discuss of uncared for figures in Twentieth-century British music, Lutyens absolutely tops the record, spurned as a lot for her soundworld as her gender. (By the way Vaughan Williams taught and supported most of the subsequent era of composers, together with a major variety of feminine composers. “Not one of the different professors checked out us as individuals,” social activist Belinda Norman-Butler stated. “However he did.”)Saylor’s measured contribution to our understanding of Vaughan Williams is welcome, and might solely add to our understanding of the unusual, attention-grabbing colors Vaughan Williams conjured, significantly within the august of his profession. And for listeners seeking to transfer past the acquainted sound of The Lark Ascending, a great way of approaching his music afresh is by working backwards, from the Ninth Symphony’s fierce defiance and weird sonorities (that includes three saxophones and a flugelhorn) via the eerie chill of the Sinfonia Antartica and the violent Sixth Symphony earlier than arriving at his standard, pastoral Fifth. It’s an unfamiliar journey however a reminder that serenity didn’t come merely for this difficult composer.