RALPH VAUGHAN WILLIAMS’ 150TH BIRTHDAY
By Andrew Wallace
This year marks the 150th birthday of British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), marked by performances of his orchestral works across the country including our beloved Halle and to be featured in this year’s BBC proms season.
I would like to highlight some of VW’s lessor known music such as the orchestral arrangement of The Songs of Travel which offer the listener evocative slices of countryside pastoralism and ‘wayfarer’ reveries of the somewhat lugubrious traveller. Set to the poetry of Robert Louis Stevenson, the songs nostalgically articulate the traveller’s bittersweet contemplation of a rugged agrarian life. From the strident martial opening of the Vagabond to the miniature heartfelt Let Beauty Awake, this collection is a delightful song cycle of British romanticism.
Another VW song cycle very much in the same vernacular is the bucolic On Wenlock Edge. To be recommended in either its delicate chamber version or the lush full orchestral backing. The songs are taken from Housman's famous A Shropshire Lad, reaching their summit in the penultimate Bredon Hill. A gorgeously fashioned and ambient slice of pastoral contemplation that demands many repeated hearings.
The Suite for Viola and Orchestra is a delightfully sunny and joyous work, its opening arpeggiated playfulness reminiscent of Debussy’s Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum. By turns exuberantly folksy and virtuosic, this is a work that deserves much greater exposure and could almost rank alongside the modernist Bartok in its virtuosic viola pyrotechnics.
VW’s also had his feet planted firmly in the 20th century, none more so than as an important film composer. His stirring opening theme for the Powell and Pressburger Second World War film 49th Parallel is clearly a worthy progenitor to John Williams Saving Private Ryan. This is emotive lump in the throat stuff that immediately resonates as it obviously did back then when serving as a veritable piece of wartime propaganda.
VW’s most famous film music came some six year later. Scott of the Antarctic (SotA), the film score being repurposed for the composer’s 7th Symphony. Luckily for VW fans and film historians, conductor Martin Yates working with the composer’s estate, has managed to transcribe and reconstruct from the original manuscripts the full score, incorporating additional materials that didn’t make it into the final theatrical film print.
SotA is a thrilling landscape, a vast unforgiving tundra and ice sheets that pit fragile human figures in their heroic endeavours against the mysterious and inscrutable forces of nature. No Morris dancers on the horizon here!