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Essential Vaughan Williams

By Gary Barton

In his entry on Vaughan Williams in Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Nicolas Slonimsky calls Vaughan Williams the "foremost English composer." The son of a clergyman, he was born in the Cotswold village of Down Ampney, Gloucestershire October 12, 1872. He received his education at the Charterhouse School, London and at Trinity College, Cambridge, earning MusB in 1894, a BA in history in 1895 and a Mus. Doc. in 1901. In his spare time and during holidays, Vaughan Williams traveled throughout England collecting folksongs and dances, much as Bartok and Kodaly did in Hungary. Hugh Ottaway, in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, refers to this phenomenon as a "regenerative use of native resources."

Here at WGUC we pronounce Vaughan William's first name "Raif", (rhymes with waif), which is given at many sources. The composer himself is said to have become enraged when referred to as "Rahlff."

During World War I, Vaughan Williams served first as an orderly with the Royal Army Medical Corps in France and Salonica. He was later an artillery officer in France. This service may have helped to account for the loss of hearing he experienced later in life. He was also deeply saddened by the loss of close friends such as the composer, George Butterworth. Earlier, he had developed a deep friendship with the composer, Gustav Holst. The two composers criticized each other's work and helped each other with compositional problems.

Following the war, Vaughan Williams became a professor of composition at The Royal College of Music and made several visits to the United States to lecture and conduct. He also continued to compose music in many forms - symphonies, operas, choral works, incidental music and song cycles, to name a few. His Symphony No. 9 was completed at the age of 85.

Visit the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society website at www.rvwsociety.com for a wealth of information regarding the composer and his music. The definitive biography of the composer is R.V.W. -- A Biography, written by his widow, Ursula.

The Essential Vaughan Williams

I promised to suggest some recordings of Vaughan Williams's work. Here they are. First, for the price of two and a half SACDs, you can by an eight-CD (ADD) boxed set (EMI 73924) of the complete Vaughan Williams symphonies as conducted by the man who led the premieres of over a third of them, Sir Adrian Boult. Vaughan Williams valued Boult highly, writing to him once, "…you had got the score right into you & through you into your orchestra. May I say how much I admired your conducting - it is real conducting - you get just what you want & know what you want & your players trust you because they know it also." These performances, originally issued as stereo LPs, are benchmark interpretations. Symphony No. 1 "A Sea Symphony" is a work for chorus, soprano, baritone and orchestra that uses poetry by Walt Whitman about the sea as an allegory to life. Vaughan Williams thought of Symphony No. 2 "London" more as a symphony by a Londoner rather than a tone painting of the city itself. You will however hear the harps emulating "Big Ben" chime twice, once near the beginning and again just preceding the Epilogue. You'll also feel as if you're hearing the painting of the Houses of Parliament by Claude Monet. The performance on this disc is the second revision made by Vaughan Williams of this work. There is a melody, which appears twice in the second movement about 5 ˝ minutes in that is totally transcendent.

This set also includes Symphony No. 3 "Pastoral" with its haunting, wordless soprano solo part (first performed in 1922 with Boult conducting) and the foreboding Symphony No. 4. The composer said of this work, "I don't know if I like it, but it's what I meant." The magical Symphony No. 5 was dedicated to Sibelius "without permission." Symphony No. 6 is again a bit menacing. It was written between 1938-43. Symphony No. 7, "Sinfonia Antarctica," which is based on material written for the score of the film, Scott of the Antarctic, includes wind machine and xylophone for that extra chilliness required (this one is great on a blistering hot summer day). Symphony No. 8 is the shortest of these orchestral works, and the ideas of Symphony No. 9 evoke Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles.

I feel a bit like a television huckster here when I say, "But wait, that's not all…" However, this amazing set contains as well many other works by Vaughan Williams, including the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (based on a hymn), which had its origins in the study Vaughan Williams did while preparing his edition of The English Hymnal (1906). No one who has ever heard this work remains untouched, at least as my experience tells me. Also on the discs are The Wasps, the Serenade to Music in its original version for 16 leading singers and orchestra and a ravishing setting of Jessica and Lorenzo's scene in Act V of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice with its allusions to music. The list continues with the orchestral version of the English Folk Song Suite (originally for band, here in an orchestral arrangement by Gordon Jacob), the wonderfully atmospheric Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1 and the Fantasia on Greensleeves, with its midpoint interpolation of a lovely Norfolk folk-song, Lovely Joan that Vaughan Williams had collected. A fine performance of In the Fen Country evokes the flat lonely eastern English landscape that the composer also knew from his folk-song collecting. Always a favorite too is The Lark Ascending. The Concerto for 2 Pianos started out as a concerto for solo piano but only Harriet Cohen could play it so Vaughan Williams divvied up the handwork. Here, Vitya Vronsky and Victor Babin are the soloists. Finally comes Job: A Masque for Dancing, music for a ballet drawn from William Blake's Illustrations of the Book of Job. All of that music with copious notes and the complete texts for every vocal work! You won't be sorry you made this investment. Although some of the works may be a bit difficult at first, so is learning to ride a bike.

You may also want to consider EMI 64722 for Five Variants of 'Dives and Lazarus' and some other vocal material.

I'm happy to tell you that there are Hybrid SACDs of several of Vaughan Williams's major works. Telarc SACD 60588 presents the large scale Symphony No. 1, "A Sea Symphony" in surround sound (all of the Whitman texts come with the booklet) with Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and a chorus plus two soloists.

I'm very excited about the world premiere recording of Symphony No. 2 "London" in its original 1913 version. It runs a full 15 minutes longer than the version usually performed today! The big payoff occurs about 8 ˝ minutes into the second movement. It's available on Chandos (CHSA 5001) with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Richard Hickox. Also on the CD, in honor of the great friendship between the two composers, is George Butterworth's The Banks of Green Willow. Chandos CHSA 5002 is another multi-channel SACD hybrid devoted to Vaughan Williams's music. It contains the suppressed Norfolk Rhapsody No. 2, Symphony No. 3 "Pastoral," The Running Set, which is based on traditional folk-tunes and the more broadly available Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1.

Chandos (CHSA 5004) again presents the London Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Richard Hickox in Valiant-for-Truth, a motet for voices and organ written on the death of Vaughan Williams's friend, Dorothy Longman. It uses a text from John Bunyan. The Symphony No. 5 (my favorite I think), the premiere recordings of The Pilgrim Pavement, Hymn-Tune Prelude on Song 13 by Orlando Gibbons, The Pilgrim's Progress, based on the 23rd Psalm and the Prelude and Fugue in c minor are also included. Malcom Hicks is the organist on the last piece and several works feature the Richard Hickox Singers. All four of these Hybrid SACDs are sheer pleasure to listen to; it's a wonderful experience to be enfolded in Vaughan Williams sonorities.

You may also want to check out some unexpectedly fine performances on Chandos 9262 of the Oboe, Violin and Tuba Concertos, Concerto Grosso for String Orchestra, Two Hymn-Tune Preludes, Piano Concerto in C Major, Partita for Double String Orchestra, and Toward the Unknown Region. Bryden Thomson conducts the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus.

Many of the recordings mentioned above may be purchased at ArkivMusic.com, where a portion of your purchase can benefit WGUC.


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