This is my first article in this series so I’m still getting used to figuring out how to organize and write what will help you get into this music. I hope you enjoy this and learn something from it. If you have any suggestions I would very much appreciate it.
It’s difficult to choose who goes first. Seriously, out of hundreds of years a music, where do you start? After thinking for a while, considering our purposes, I feel that it’s best to start with Ralph Vaughan Williams.
Let’s start with his name “Ralph.” He’s English, but strangely, it’s not pronounced like you think. It’s commonly pronounced “Rafe” (rhymes with safe) rather than “Ralph.” There are some that insist that it’s “Ralph,” but most people say “Rafe.” Go with the latter and you’ll be safe in mixed company.
Born into a fairly wealthy family in 1872, he studied music at Trinity College, Cambridge and at the Royal College of Music where he was a student of both Charles Villiers Stanford and Charles Hubert Parry. I mention these two composers because they are at the forefront of the rebirth of great, domestic, English music. These two guys helped begin a new Renaissance and then turned around and taught the next generation of composers including Vaughan Williams and his friend Gustav Holst. Because of his teachers he’s mostly a romantic composer, but does venture and borrow impressionist styles and techniques while keeping his sound very “English.”
Anyway, moving along. Like I said, Vaughan Williams is quintessentially English. He loved English folk tunes which were beginning to die from their oral traditions at that time. He personally went out, collected and incorporated many of those tunes into his own music. One great examples is his arrangement of “Greensleeves” for orchestra. Listen for that old familiar melody.
Vaughan Williams was extremely talented at writing for strings orchestras. While the piano was challenging for him, he was very talented at the violin and it shows. He also studied with French composer Maurice Ravel, who is still considered one of the finest orchestrators in history. Vaughan Williams’ orchestrations are characterized by lush, warm colors mostly due to emphasizing the violas and cellos.
One of the best examples of his fantastic string writing is his “Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis.” Tallis was also an English composer, but lived and worked in the royal chapel of Elizabeth I during the Renaissance. Tallis’ piece, “Why Fum’th in Fight,” has a haunting melody that I’m sure Vaughan Williams found irresistible. Vaughan Williams loved to take these old melodies from, as early as the 1500s, and set them in a romantic, heart-breaking way. Listen to Tallis’ original setting, then listen to Vaughan Williams’ intepretation.
One of the amazing things about Vaughan Williams was that he was good at writing for every kind of ensemble, not just orchestras. He wrote a great deal for choirs especially church choirs, which is a bit of a surprise considering that Vaughan Williams was agnostic. And still, he wrote very stirring and moving sacred music. He even took on a commission to create a new English Hymnal for the Church of England.
After a few years of fame Vaughan Williams voluntarily joined the army during World War I which would change his life forever. Fighting in the trenches disillusioned him from the “noble fight” he felt he signed up for. After returning to England, he worked to promote English nationalism through peace rather than fighting. Fearing that another war was coming, he wrote a choral/orchestral work to vocalize his pleading. This became Dona Nobis Pacem which is latin for “grant us peace.” Using texts from the catholic mass, and poems by American poet Walt Whitman (whose poetry he loved and set many times), he put into music his anti-war sentiments. While received very well by audiences at the time, the work fell on deaf ears and the United Kingdom entered World War II a few years later. Here’s an excerpt from the movement, “Beat! Beat! Drums!” with words by Walt Whitman.
One of Vaughan William’s finest choral works was a piece called “Silence and Music,” with words penned by his second wife and literary advisor Ursula Wood. While it was written for the coronation of Elizabeth II, it is dedicated to his mentor and teacher Charles Villiers Stanford and his “Blue Bird” (a short but stunning choral piece for unaccompanied choir). Listening to the Stanford’s “Blue Bird,” you can see where Vaughan Williams got his inspiration for the piece. It’s not sung very often because of it’s difficulty, but it proves to be a ravishing work of serenity and stillness. This is my favorite recording by the SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart. Listen to the way he sets the words “weep and cry,” and “the birds rejoice.”
I see a sleeping swan, wings closed and drifting where the water leads,
a winter moon,
a grove where shadows dream,
a hand outstretched to gather hollow reeds.
The four winds in their litanies can tell all of earth’s stories as they weep and cry,
the sea names her tides,
the birds rejoice between the earth and sky.
Voices of grief and from the heart of joy;
so near to comprehension do we stand that wind and sea and all of winged delight lie in the octaves of man’s voice and hand
and music wakes from silence, where it slept.
One piece that must be mentioned is “The Lark Ascending,” written for violin solo and orchestra. Based on a poem by George Meredith, the violin is meant to embody a skylark singing and flying. This work was written surrounding World War I: he finished it before the war for violin and piano and then orchestrated it after returning from the war. I can’t help but get emotional while listening to this piece because of it’s gorgeous nostalgia. It cries out for innocence lost and soars with wild abandon. Many times it flows in and out of states of rapture and grace. This piece remains to be one of the Brits favorite piece of classical music of all time.
There’s so much more music by Vaughan Williams that deserves attention. I encourage you to look up more music by him including his Sea Symphony and Mass in G minor. I want to end this article with what I consider to be one of his most profound works: Serenade to Music. Using words from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice he writes for orchestra and 16 solo singers that he knew and worked with. Later he arranged it for orchestra, choir and 4 soloists to make it more accessible. I frequently find myself coming back to this piece and getting misty-eyed because it embodies so beautifully how I feel about music. I’ve chosen the version with choir and four soloists, but if you prefer to hear the premiere recording with the original singers that Vaughan Williams picked, you can find it here.
How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here will we sit and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.
Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold:
There’s not the smallest orb that thou behold’st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins;
Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.
Come, ho! and wake Diana with a hymn!
With sweetest touches pierce your mistress’ ear,
And draw her home with music.
I am never merry when I hear sweet music.
The reason is, your spirits are attentive –
The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not mov’d with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted. Music! hark!
It is your music of the house.
Methinks it sounds much sweeter than by day.
Silence bestows that virtue on it
How many things by season season’d are
To their right praise and true perfection!
Peace, ho! the moon sleeps with Endymion
And would not be awak’d. Soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.
And remember, if you liked anything you heard or read, share it with someone else. If not, just wait a little while, something else will come by.