Ralph Vaughan Williams: Gentle Genius of 20th Century British Classical Music

Northern France, World War I, 1917

Ralph Vaughan Williams finally woke up out of his early morning slumber after a restless night as it was the chill and the dampness of the place, along with the sounds of gunfire punctuating the French night that kept his body and soul at unease.  Vaughan Williams briskly stood up as a man in his forties, and embraced the morning, rubbed his eyes, and began to survey the French countryside while the dawn light began to spill over the horizon line defining the hills, meadows, and rolling pastures.  As Vaughan Williams looked out over the landscape, he thought how beautiful the natural world is, how truly divine.  Does not such beauty validate a divine love for us all?  His head began to fill up with thoughts of his father that he never knew, his mother Margaret, and the beautiful women in his social circle but mostly the music running through his head that he wanted to put down ink to paper.

If the early morning could not be any more beautiful, a chorus of the birds began singing songs filling the countryside.  As the daylight slowly became luminous, the morning light painted the pastoral landscape, and there high above the misty meadow below, a solitary lark hovers in the air, vacillating up and ascending high in the sky, as to state to the entire sphere; this is a world of both wondrous and horrific beauty measured in fleeting cadence of time.  Such is the nature of the divine grace; a heighten order of life itself one cannot possess, apprehend, or anticipate, as existence never promised or with requital.  The lark suddenly darts up high in the blue sky once more, flies away into the distance, and disappears.

Lost in his thoughts about the lark, reminiscing about a poem he once read about a skylark, Vaughan Williams turned around to hear a voice coming from behind him, Sir, telegram, Sir telegram, he opens the envelope that is handed to him and reads each line twice, then whispers, George Butterworth.  Vaughan Williams then sits down putting his face into his hands trying to comprehend the death of his friend in both the Great War and life in music.  The powerful sounds of cannon fire start to mark the beginning of another day of the war, interrupting the peaceful French countryside, stealing away the divine and momentary beauty of the lark, of a time, never forgotten.

From Down Ampney to Leith Hill Place

Ralph Vaughan Williams was born on October 12, 1872, at Down Ampney, Gloucestershire.  Vaughan Williams was the third son of Reverend Arthur Vaughan Williams and Margaret Wedgewood.  On his father side, the Vaughan Williams line were mostly lawyers and judges.  From his mother’s line, his forbearers were of the Darwin-Wedgewood family.  His mother was the niece of the renowned naturalist Charles Darwin and great-granddaughter of Josiah Wedgewood, founder of Wedgewood Pottery.  The Darwin-Wedgewood family was wealthy, influential, and socially progressive as Josiah Wedgewood was a prominent abolitionist, and is remembered for creating, “Am I not a Man and a Brother?” anti-slavery medallion. Vaughan Williams’ father, AV Williams died when Vaughan Williams was about three in 1875, and the family moved from Down Ampney to his mother’s family Wedgewood home in Leith Hill Place.  There Vaughan Williams lived there for twenty years.

Life in Music

Vaughan Williams, educated at the Charterhouse school and then went on to the study composition at the Royal College of Music with Sir Hubert Parry and Sir Charles Villiers Stanford.  In 1892, Vaughan Williams entered Trinity College, Cambridge to study church music and history with Charles Wood.  In 1899, he earned his Doctorate in music from Trinity College.  From 1899 to 1907, Vaughan Williams worked on many projects that will come to define his him in the history of British music, editing the English Hymnals, and setting English folk songs from around the eastern counties north of London into classical form.  Vaughan Williams in his lifetime composed nine major symphonic works among notable and significant smaller works of music and choral.

Notable Works before 1907:

Serenade in A minor (1898)
Bucolic Suite (1900)
Willow Wood (1903)
In the Fen Country (1904)
Songs of Travel (1904)
Norfolk Rhapsodies (1905-1906)

Serenade in A minor (Romance Andantino-Appassionato): Written in 1898 and first performed in April 1901 at Bournemouth under the baton of Dan Godfrey.  By this time, Vaughan Williams had left the Royal College of Music and been married to his first wife, Adeline Fisher.  It was the Rev. W.J. Spooner, of Spoonerism fame, that married Ralph Vaughan Williams and Adeline Fisher.  They honeymooned in Berlin, where Vaughan Williams also studied with Max Bruch.  It was in Berlin where Vaughan Williams began writing Serenade in A minor.  Early works like Serenade in A minor exhibited his talent and sensibilities in creating an atmospheric symphonic landscape with a harmonic balance of emotional and rationale spheres.   Serenade A minor, starts out with pulsing strings and searching winds and asking questions along the way, then recapitulate with the strings and horns with longing intensity and majestic tones.  Then a crescendo with violins in a high answer and soft rolling phrases with horns, drums, and violins to the end.

Bucolic Suite:  The suite is also pastoral. Bucolic is an archaic English word for rural.  The work initially completed in November 1900, however, Vaughan Williams revised the work again, in 1901, which proved to be more of a refinement of the work.  The Bournemouth Orchestra under the baton of Dan Godfrey performed the Bucolic Suite on March 10, 1902, for the first time.  Bucolic Suite is sometimes paired up in performance with cantata published in 1951, Sons of Light. (mixed chorus and orchestra, text by his second wife, Ursula Vaughan William).

The Suite consists of four movements:
Intermezzo (Allegro)
Finale (Allegro)

Willow-Wood: The cantata Willow-Wood was written in 1903 and the revision in its orchestral version first premiere in 1909.  The composer sets the cantata for baritone, wordless female chorus and orchestra of four sonnets, which Vaughan Williams turns into a tableau on love divided by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, House of Life.  The chorus mostly supplies the pre-Raphaelite color.  Vaughan Williams remained fond of the piece throughout his life and tried to get the score republished just three years before his death, which is evident in his regard for the work.

In the Fen Country:  An orchestral tone poem by Vaughan Williams, however, the composer described it as a symphonic impression.  Vaughan Williams had completed the first version of the work in April 1904, followed by a second, and third revisions, respectively in 1905 and 1907.  The first premiere was under the baton of Thomas Beecham in 1909.  Vaughan Williams’ musical evocation of the English countryside, portraying eastern England, a region sometimes referred to as the Fens, includes parts of Cambridgeshire, Suffolk, Norfolk, and Lincolnshire.  An eloquent meditation and building up emotions with the subtlety of the violins, winds, and defining horns as like waiting for a thunderstorm to arrive with growing anticipation of the summer storm.  Reaching the intensity of the musical storm and release, the rain comes sweeping across the fields and pastures, soaking the earth and all who dwell in it.  The storm passes into the distance and strands of sunlight start to break through the clouds. Highlighted are the top of the trees with a golden crown of light contrasted with cyan and blue tones of the dark clouds canvassing the sky.  The lower tones contemplate the same questions, phrasing, and re-phrasing, finding ease, with this good earth of England.  Then recapitulation back to the melancholy tones of the passing of time and a soft exit from the Fen country with a long turning note of the violin into silence.

Songs of Travel: Song cycles composed by Vaughan Williams based on poems by Robert Louis Stevenson. Written for baritone voice but was originally written for a piano and voice.  All song cycles also have a second key version for tenor.  Vaughan Williams orchestrated, The Vagabond, Roadside Fires, and Bright is the Ring of Words, while Roy Douglas who was Vaughan Williams’ music assistant, finished the other six song cycles with the same orchestration and is a co-orchestrator to the work of Songs of Travel.  Songs of Travel, written between 1901 and 1904 and these song cycles are Vaughan Williams’ first major introductions into songwriting and the quintessential British version of the wayfarer.

The Eight Song Cycles of Songs of Travel:
1. The Vagabond
2. Let Beauty Awake
3. The Roadside Fire
4. Youth and Love
5. In Dreams
6. The Infinite Shining Heavens
7. Whither Must I Wander
8. Bright is the Ring of Words

Norfolk Rhapsodies: A series of three symphonic folk songs developed by Vaughan Williams around 1905-1906.  Specifically, the collections of folk songs are from Norfolk County, King’s Lynn fishing port.  Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1 in E minor is the only Rhapsody that survived in its entirety and which Vaughan Williams revised in 1914.   The second Rhapsody is incomplete and is in a fragmented form but reconstructed by Stephen Hoggers.   The third Rhapsody is lost completely since 1920.  Vaughan Williams intended the three Rhapsodies to form a symphonic folk song; the first Rhapsody as the first movement, the second Rhapsody combing the second and third movements along with a scherzo.  The third Rhapsody was to form the final, a quick march and trio.  Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1 in E minor is indeed the essence of Englishness and life on the sea.

Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1 in E minor
Norfolk Rhapsody No. 2 in D minor
Norfolk Rhapsody No. 3

In 1907, Vaughan Williams arranged to study in Paris with Maurice Ravel. It was writer and critic Michel de Calvocoressi who convinced Vaughan Williams to study with Ravel.  The three months spent studying with Ravel influenced Vaughan Williams’ compositions and use of color.

“I learned much from him.  For example, that the heavy contrapuntal Teutonic manner was not necessary. ‘Complexe mais pas compliqué'(Complex but not complicated) was his motto.  He showed me how to orchestrate in points of colour rather than in lines.” 

“His own music was ‘tout à fait simple, rien que Mozart’ (quite simple, nothing than Mozart). He was against development for its own sake – one should only develop for the sake of arriving at something better.”

Some observers of the time thought Vaughan Williams’ music had more depth and developed a distinct signature of music after 1907. Vaughan Williams produced six powerful symphonic works during this time from 1907 to 1914.

Notable Works 1907-1914:

On Wenlock Edge: (1909)
Aristophanic Suite: The Wasps (1909)
Sea Symphony (1910)
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910)
Five Mystical Songs (1911)
London Symphony (1913)

On Wenlock Edge: The first symphonic work Vaughan Williams developed after his Ravel experience.  A song cycle composed of six poems by A. E. Housman, ‘A Shropshire Lad’ (1896).  Although the works are for voice, violin, and piano the composition reflect his Paris experience with the use of simplicity and points of color.

Taken from A Shropshire Lad:
 XXXI “On Wenlock Edge”
 XXXII “From far, from eve and morning.”
 XXVII “Is my team ploughing?”
 XVIII “Oh, when I was in love with you.”
 XXI “Bredon Hill” 
 L “Clun” 

Aristophanic Suite: The Wasps:  In 1908, the Cambridge Greek Play Committee invited Vaughan Williams, while at Trinity College as an undergraduate to create an incidental score for the play, “The Wasps.”  His mentors at Cambridge, Hubert Parry, and Charles Villiers Stanford supported Vaughan Williams’ nomination and both taught Vaughan Williams his craft of scoring and composition.  The play “The Wasps” authored by the ancient Greek playwright of Athens, Aristophanes, and the Old Comedy play satirizes the love of litigation by ancient Athenians.  The Wasps considered Vaughan Williams’ foray into incidental but it is the Wasp Overture that is widely known and the most popular out of the suite today.  The March Past of the Kitchen Utensils is also quite a gem out of the suite as well but lesser known.

Sea Symphony: Considered Vaughan William’ first major symphony, sometimes referred to as Symphony No.1.  Vaughan Williams worked intermittently on the chorus and orchestration between 1903 and 1909.  The Sea Symphony began a new era of symphonic and choral music.  The Sea Symphony was one of the first symphonies in which a choir is an integral part of the musical texture and words of the choir come from Walt Whitman’, Leaves of Grass.  This was the first time British audiences heard Whitman’ poetry sung or alone exposed to Walt Whitman’ poetry.  First performed in 1910 at the Leeds Festival on his 38th birthday and received critical acclaim in Britain.   Hugh Cobbe, editor of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ letters stated, “He was already 38 that is a late composer, was not Mozart already dead at that point.  He was a late developer and he kept on developing to the end of his life.”  Vaughan Williams’ final and last symphony was composed from 1956–1958 and completed when he was 85 years of age.  During the period (1903-1909), an informal narrative or story went around about his struggle with creating the work of the Sea Symphony; Vaughan Williams went to a disserted beach near Yorkshire, Robin hood Bay to take a swim in the sea and found himself in a dangerous position, the sea waves were rougher than he thought, and he could not get back onto the rocks for a prolonged period.  Vaughan Williams struggled to a point where he was exhausted and was about to give in to drowning in the sea, when a fluke of nature happened, a large wave lifted him out of the sea up onto the rocks.  Vaughan Williams went on to create eight more symphonic works to the end of his life.

Sea Symphony Structure:

Movement 1 – Fast introductory – “A Song for All Seas, All Ships.”
(baritone, soprano, and chorus)

Movement 2 – Slow – “On the Beach at Night Alone”
(baritone and chorus)

Movement 3 – Scherzo – The Waves –  “After the Sea-ship”

Movement 4 – Finale – The Explorers – “Passage to India”  
(baritone, soprano, semi-chorus, and chorus)

The first movement lasts roughly twenty minutes; the inner movements approximately eleven and eight minutes, and the finale lasts roughly thirty minutes.

Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis:  A String Orchestra based on Thomas Tallis, one of England’s greatest composers in British history of music.  Vaughan Williams’ Tallis Fantasia captures the spirit of the period music but still carries Vaughan Williams harmonic signatures that uniquely are Ralph Vaughan Williams.  Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis performed and conducted for the first by Vaughan Williams in September 1910 in Gloucester Cathedral for the Three Choirs Festival.  The composition proved to be a major success for Vaughan Williams.  The Tallis Fantasia proved to be a game changer as well that year with its cathedral sound, which left some composers attending the concert that night wandering the streets of London all night reflecting what they heard at the Gloucester Cathedral concert, with a work of astonishing originality.  Tallis Fantasia song is one of the most spiritual interpretation without a religious context in the early half of the twentieth century.   The composer revised Tallis Fantasia score in 1913 and again in 1919.

Five Mystical Songs:  Written between 1906 and 1911 by Vaughan Williams, and like many of Vaughan Williams’ works, poems or literary texts are set to music.   This work sets four poems by George Herbert (1593–1633), a seventeenth-century Welsh-born English poet and Anglican priest.  First performed on 14 September 1911, at the Three Choirs Festival in Worcester, with Vaughan Williams conducting, and considered a critical success.  The work was written for a baritone soloist, with several choices for accompaniment:

• Piano only.
• Piano and string quintet.
• TTBB (Tenor 1, Tenor 2, Bass 1 (Baritone), Bass 2) chorus, a cappella.
• Orchestra with optional SATB (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) chorus. This was the choice used at the premiere.

The first four song cycles, Easter, I Got Me Flowers, Love Bade Me Welcome, and The Call, are all sober, introspective, meditations on life with the same intrinsic spirituality as the original text.  A baritone soloist like Sir Thomas Allen can turn notes, hence, providing consistent and strong foundation and structure throughout the suite.  Vaughan Williams masterfully integrates the voices of the instrumentation, soloist, and chorus providing the organic unity of the suite.  Antiphon is perhaps the most different out the five-song cycles, cheerful and upbeat anthem; “Let all the world in every corner sing”.

1. Easter – from Herbert’s Easter
Rise heart; thy Lord is risen. Sing his praise without delayes, Who takes thee by the hand, that thou likewise with him may’st rise; That, as his death calcined thee to dust, his life may make thee gold, and much more, just.  Awake, my lute, and struggle for thy part with all thy art.  The crosse taught all wood to resound his name, who bore the same. His stretched sinews taught all strings, what key is the best to celebrate this most high day. Consort both heart and lute, and twist a song pleasant and long; Or since all musick is but three parts vied and multiplied.  O let thy blessed Spirit bear a part, and make up our defects with his sweet art.

2. I Got Me Flowers – from the second half of Easter
I got me flowers to strew thy way; I got me boughs off many a tree: But thou wast up by break of day, and brought’st thy sweets along with thee.  The Sunne arising in the East. Though he give light, and th’East perfume; If they should offer to contest With thy arising, they presume.  Can there be any day but this, though many sunnes to shine endeavour?  We count three hundred, but we misse: There is but one, and that one ever.

3. Love Bade Me Welcome – from Love
Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back. Guiltie of dust and sinne. But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack From my first entrance in, drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning if I lack’d anything. A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here: Love said, You shall be he. I the unkinde, ungrateful? Ah, my deare, I cannot look on thee. Love took my hand, and smiling did reply, Who made the eyes but I? Truth Lord, but I have marr’d them: let my shame Go where it doth deserve. And know you not, sayes Love, who bore the blame?  My deare, then I will serve. You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my meat: So I did sit and eat.

4. The Call – from The Call
Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life: Such a Way, as gives us breath: Such a Truth, as ends all strife: Such a Life, as killeth death. Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength: Such a Light, as shows a feast: Such a Feast, as mends in length: Such a Strength, as makes his guest.  Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart: Such a Joy, as none can move: Such a Love, as none can part: Such a Heart, as joyes in love.

5. Antiphon – from Antiphon
Let all the world in ev’ry corner sing: My God and King. The heavens are not too high, His praise may thither flie; The earth is not too low, His praises there may grow. Let all the world in ev’ry corner sing: My God and King. The Church with psalms must shout, no doore can keep them out; But above all, the heart must bear the longest part. Let all the world in ev’ry corner sing: My God and King.

London Symphony: This symphony sometimes referred to as the Symphony No. 2 but was not designated as so. The symphony was composed from 1912 to 1913.  Vaughan Williams dedicated to his friend and fellow composer George Butterworth (1885–1916), killed during the Great World War I.

George Butterworth had first encouraged Vaughan Williams to write a purely orchestral symphony:

“We were talking together one day when he said in his gruff, abrupt manner: ‘You know, you ought to write a symphony.’ I answered… that I have never written a symphony and never intended to… I suppose Butterworth’ words stung me and, anyhow, I looked at some sketches I had made for… a symphonic poem about London and decided to throw it into symphonic form… From that moment, the idea of a symphony dominated my mind. I showed the sketches to George bit by bit as they were finished, and it was then that I realized that he possessed in common with very few composers a wonderful power of criticism of other men’s work and insight into their ideas and motives. I can never feel too grateful to him for all he did for me over this work and his help did not stop short at criticism.”

First performed in 1914, the four-movement symphony was lost shortly after the first performance and reconstructed by Geoffrey Toye, George Butterworth, and the critic E. J. Dent.  From the program notes from a concert in 1920, Vaughan Williams said that while the title may suggest a programmatic piece but intended as absolute music and suggested that Symphony by a Londoner might be a better title.  Vaughan Williams did allow conductor Albert Coates to provide elaborate descriptions for the 1920 performance.  Vaughan Williams continued to make changes to London Symphony, between 1914 and 1933 accumulating approximately 3,724 changes to the score with the final version more than twenty minutes shorter than the original.

London Symphony – Four Movements:
1. Lento-Allegro Risoluto
2. Lento
3. Scherzo (Nocturne)
4. Finale – Andante con moto – Maestoso alla marcia – Allegro – Lento – Epilogue

Notable Works of the 20s and 30s

The Lark Ascending (1914-1921)
Pastoral Symphony (1922)
Mass in G Minor (1922)
Hugh the Drover (Opera) (1924)
Job – A Masque for Dancing (1931)
Piano Concerto (1931)
Symphony in F Minor No.4 (1934)
Five Tudor Portraits (1935)

The Lark Ascending: In 1914, Vaughan Williams was inspired to write a composition and musical work based on a poem by the English poet George Meredith about the song of the skylark, The Lark Ascending.  Originally, Vaughan Williams composed The Lark Ascending in 1914 for violin and piano.  Vaughan Williams continued to work the composition until the first public performance in 1920.  Later the composer re-scored it for solo violin and orchestra with the help of violinist Marie Hall, which premiered in 1921.  The Lark Ascending is perhaps the quintessential transcendental symphonic work of the twentieth century.  A symphonic meditation upon life itself through the motif of the lark (violin) as the personification of the natural world, human spirit, and gentleness, in contrast to harsh realities of the human narrative.  The lark takes us on a musical journey where we learn of what the love of life means with all of its vicissitudes but through this journey, we experience evocation, simplicity, and of the beauty of the natural world as the divine gateway.

Pastoral Symphony: Also known as Symphony No. 3, but published as A Pastoral Symphony in 1922, and numbered later. The inspiration to write this symphony came during World War I, Vaughan Williams once commented, after hearing a bugler practicing and accidentally playing an interval of a seventh instead of an octave,” this said to inspired the trumpet cadenza in the second movement. The Pastoral Symphony gained the reputation of being a subtly beautiful elegy for the dead of World War I and meditation with an evocative spirit.  The Pastoral Symphony first performed in London on January 16, 1922, under the baton of Adrian Boult.  Vaughan Williams emphasized, however, that the work is “not really Lambkins frisking at all as most people take for granted”.   The frame of reference for Vaughan Williams was the fields of France during World War I, where Vaughan Williams served in the Royal Army Medical Corp.

The work consists of four movements:
1. Molto Moderato
2. Lento moderato – Moderato maestoso
3. Moderato pesante
4. Lento

Mass in G Minor:  A choral work was written in 1921; a distinctly English style mass.  The City of Birmingham Choir performed the Mass in G minor on December 6, 1922.  Although the first performance was in a concert, however, the composer intended the Mass in G minor to be performed in a liturgical setting.  Ralph Vaughan Williams dedicated the work to his good friend, Gustav Holst. Gustav Holst and the Whitsuntide Singers.

The work consists of five movements:
1. Kyrie
2. Gloria in Excelsis
3. Credo
4. Sanctus Osanna I – Benedictus – Osanna II
5. Agnus Dei

Hugh the Drover:  An opera in two acts based on an original English libretto by Harold Child. Vaughan Williams worked on the operatic work for some years; before and after World War I.  The opera’s first performance was on July 4, 1924, at the Royal College of Music, London and the “professional premiere” was at His Majesty’s Theatre on July 14, 1924. The opera’s first U.S. performance took place on February 21, 1928.  Also, the opera was performed by the professional Canadian Opera Company in Toronto in November 1929, at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto, which included a live radio broadcast from the Royal York Hotel on November 13, 1929.  Vaughan Williams continued to revise the libretto and the opera over the remainder of his life. The final version was performed in 1956 and published in 1959.

Mary (soprano)
Aunt Jane (mezzo-soprano)
Hugh the drover (tenor)
John the butcher (baritone)
Sergeant (baritone)
Constable (bass)
A cheap-jack (tenor)
Shellfish seller (bass)
Primrose seller (soprano)
Showman (baritone)
Ballad seller (tenor)
Susan (soprano)
Nancy (mezzo-soprano)
William (tenor)
Robert (baritone)
Turnkey (tenor)
Fool (tenor)
Innkeeper (baritone)

Time and Place: Year 1812 – The Cotswolds

Act 1

The outskirts of the town, a fair is taking place; the people of the town have turned out; vendors hawk their wares. A showman presents an effigy of Napoleon Bonaparte and rouses the crowd to a fever-pitch of patriotic zeal. Mary, the daughter of the local constable, appears with her aunt. Her father wants to marry her to John the butcher, a crass, overbearing man whom she does not love. When John roughly takes Mary’s arm to walk through the fairgrounds with her, she resists. He threatens her in turn, but when a troop of morris men passes through, the crowd follows along and John is pulled along with them, leaving Mary alone with her aunt.  As Mary sings of her dreams of freedom, a young man appears and tells her of his life on the open road. He is Hugh the Drover, a driver of animals, who makes his living by providing horses for the army. Mary is fascinated by his words, and Hugh tells her that he was fated to love her. The two declare their love for each other and embrace. The crowd returns and the showman organizes a prizefight, inviting all the men to challenge John the butcher. Hugh agrees to box, but only if the prize is Mary herself. He beats John in the match, only to have John spitefully accuse him of being a French spy. The crowd turns against Hugh and he is led off to the stocks.

Act 2

The town square, early morning, a troop of soldiers have been sent to take Hugh into custody.  Meanwhile, he remains a prisoner in the stocks. Mary stealthily comes to rescue him, having stolen the key to the stocks from her father. She frees him, but before they can escape, they hear John and his comrades approaching. Each refuses to leave without the other, and they both get into the stocks (which are large enough to hold two), draping Hugh’s cloak over their bodies. When they are exposed, Mary’s father disowns her and John refuses to marry her.  The soldiers arrive, and their sergeant recognizes Hugh as an old friend who once saved his life. Instead of arresting him, they acclaim him as a loyal Briton – but take John the butcher for a soldier and march off with him. Hugh and Mary reaffirm their love. Hugh asks Mary to join him, and she at first is hesitant, as is Aunt Jane to lose her. However, Mary finally says ‘yes,’ and she and Hugh bid the town farewell to begin their life together.

Job: A Masque for Dancing:  Music for a ballet.  The premiere in concert form transpired in October 1930 at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival, under the baton of Vaughan Williams.  The world premiere performed on July 5, 1931, at the Cambridge Theatre in London’s West End theatre district.  The work called “masque” because Vaughan Williams disliked the word “ballet”.  Vaughan Williams began writing the score after the idea for the ballet was initially proposed to the Russian ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev, who rejected it.  At first Vaughan Williams had written for a larger orchestra which could be accommodated in a conventional theatre pit and when the ballet was produced, then the music was orchestrated for a small orchestra by Constant Lambert.  The ballet was also performed by the Vic-Wells Ballet, which later became known as the renowned Sadler’s Wells Ballet.  The original concept and libretto for the ballet were proposed by the scholar Geoffrey Keynes, with choreography by Ninette de Valois, music by Ralph Vaughan Williams, orchestrations by Constant Lambert and designs by Gwendolen Raverat.  The ballet is based on the Book of Job from the Hebrew Bible and was inspired by the illustrated edition by William Blake, published in 1826.  Geoffrey Keynes who first proposed the idea for the ballet was a respected authority on the work of William Blake.  Vaughan Williams dedicated the score to the conductor Adrian Boult in 1934. Boult made four commercial recordings of the work, including the first recording in 1946 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and his fourth and final recording was taped in 1970 with the London Symphony Orchestra.

The full orchestral version is scored for three flutes (third doubling on piccolo and bass flute), two oboes, cor anglais, two clarinets (in Bb), alto saxophone, bass clarinet (doubling on third clarinet in Bb), two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns (in F), three trumpets (in Bb), three trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, side drum, cymbals, bass drum, xylophone, glockenspiel, tam-tam, organ, two harp, and strings.

The Cast
Donald Britton
John Cranko
Leslie Edwards
Julia Farron
John Field
Alexander Grant
Robert Helpmann
Rowena Jackson
Gillian Lynne
Nadia Nerina
Michael Somes

The ballet includes nine scenes, based upon the sequence of Blake’s illustrations and each including quotations from the Bible.

Scene I: “Saraband of the Sons of God” (“Hast thou considered my servant Job?”)– Introduction
– Pastoral Dance
– Satan’s Appeal to God
– Saraband of the Sons of God

Scene II: “Satan’s Dance of Triumph” (“So Satan went forth from the presence of the Lord.”)
– Satan’s Dance

Scene III: “Minuet of the Sons of Job and Their Wives” (“There came a great wind and smote the four corners of the house and it fell upon the young men and they are dead.”)
– Minuet of the Sons and Daughters of Job

Scene IV: “Job’s Dream” (“In thoughts from the visions of the night….fear came upon me and trembling.”)
– Job’s Dream
– Dance of Plague, Pestilence, Famine and Battle

Scene V: “Dance of the Three Messengers” (“There came a messenger.”)
– Dance of the Messengers

Scene VI: “Dance of Job’s Comforters” (“Behold happy is the man whom God correcteth.”)
– Dance of Job’s Comforters
– Job’s Curse
– A Vision of Satan

Scene VII: “Elihu’s Dance of Youth and Beauty” (“Ye are old and I am very young.”)
– Elihu’s Dance of Youth and Beauty
– Pavane of the Heavenly Host

Scene VIII: “Pavane of the Sons of the Morning” (“All the Sons of God shouted for joy.”)
– Galliard of the Sons of the Morning
– Altar Dance and Heavenly Pavane

Scene IX: “Epilogue” (“So the Lord blessed the latter end of Job more than his beginning.”)

Piano Concerto in C:  Written in 1926, movements 1 & 2 and movement 3 between 1930-31 . During the years between 1926 and 1931, Vaughan Williams completed, Job: A Masque for Dancing, and began work on his Fourth Symphony.  The Piano Concerto in C shares some thematic characteristics with these works in likeness in their drama and turbulence.  The work was premiered on February 1, 1933 by Harriet Cohen, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under the baton of by Sir Adrian Boult.  The concerto was not well received at first, being considered unrewarding by some soloists of the day. The Concerto does provides ample opportunity for virtuosity in all movements, but Vaughan Williams treatment of the piano was percussion like, as did Béla Bartók and Paul Hindemith during this period, with the texture at times heavy.  Vaughan Williams took the advice of colleagues and reworked the piece into a Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra in 1946, by adding more texture to the piano parts with the assistance of Joseph Cooper.

Concerto Structure:
1. Toccata: Allegro moderato – Largamente – Cadenza
2. Romanza: Lento
3. Fuga Chromatica con Finale Alla Tedesca

Symphony No. 4 in F minor:  First performed on April 10, 1935, by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and under the baton of Adrian Boult.  The United States premiere was given on December 19, 1935, with Conductor Artur Rodziński and the Cleveland Orchestra.  The first recording made two years later, featured Vaughan Williams, himself conducting the same orchestra in what came to be his only commercial recording of any of his symphonies.  Unlike Vaughan Williams’ first three symphonies, the fourth was not given a title, the composer stating, that it was to be understood as pure music, without any incidental or external inspiration.  The fourth symphony displays a more severity of tone.  The composer himself once observed of it, “I’m not at all sure that I like it myself now.  All I know is that it’s what I wanted to do at the time.” The British composer Sir William Walton admired the work greatly, speaking of it as “the greatest symphony since Beethoven.”  Only two symphonies of Vaughan Williams end loudly, No.4 and No.8.

The work consists of four movements:
1. Allegro
2. Andante Moderato
3.Scherzo: Allegro Molto
4. Finale con epilogo fugato: Allegro Molto

Five Tudor Portraits: Written in 1935 at the suggestion of composer Edward Elgar to explore the poetry of Tudor Poet John Skelton, (c. 1460-1529) in which Vaughan Williams enjoyed reading the short erratic rhyming verses, possibly descending from Medieval Latin rhyming prose.  The language is colorful and sometimes crass.  The five Skelton poems set in the work are not connected in any way.  Written between 1490 and 1522 and the length of each sketch varies with “Elinor Rumming” (15 minutes) and “Jane Scroop” (20 minutes) each taking more time than the other three movements combined.  Vaughan Williams takes as much time as necessary to flesh out each character:

Five Tudor Portraits:
Elinor Rumming—innkeeper and ugliest woman in the world
Pretty Bess — the object of the singer’s desire
John Jayberd — a dead priest, beloved by no one
Jane Scroop — a child whose pet sparrow was killed by a vicious cat
Jolly Rutterkin — a cheerful, drunken neighbor

Notable Works between 1936 -1958

Dona Nobis Pacem (1936)
Riders to the Storm (1936)
Serenade to Music (1938)
Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus (1939)
Symphony No 5 in D (1943)
Symphony No 6 in E minor (1948)
The Pilgrim’s Progress (1951)
Symphony No 7 Sinfonia Antartica (1953)
‘Hodie’ This Day (1954)
Symphony No 8 in D minor (1955)
Symphony No, 9 in E minor (1958)

Dona Nobis Pacem: English translation from Latin is, Grant us Peace, and is a cantata written by Vaughan Williams in 1936, a commissioned work to mark the centenary of the Huddersfield Choral Society.  First performed on October 2, 1936, and considered a plea for peace referring the early twentieth century, first marked by World War I, and later followed by World War II.   Vaughan Williams inserted three poem verses; lines from a Walt Whitman poem, verse from the Book of Jeremiah, and political speech of John Bright formed the vocal lines for the chorus.  Originally scored for large orchestra, and featuring both soprano and baritone soloists.

Riders to the Storm:  A short one-act opera by Vaughan Williams, based on the play with the same name by John Millington Synge.  Vaughan Williams completed the score in 1927, but it did not premiere until December 1, 1937, at the Royal College of Music, London.  The opera remained largely unknown until it entered the repertoire of Sadler’s Wells in 1953.  Vaughan Williams essentially keeps Synge’ text in place with only minor changes.  The vocal score published in 1936; however, the full orchestral score was published in 1973.

Serenade to Music: A signature Vaughan Williams choral work with orchestration written in 1938.  Vaughan Williams once said, But in the next world I shan’t be doing music, with all the striving and disappointments.  I shall be it.”  Serenade to Music is the quintessential Vaughan Williams style with original orchestration, and choral singing poetic lines, calling out vocal lines of Shakespeare:  “How many things by 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.”

Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus: A work composed for harp and string orchestra and commission from the British Council to be played at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City. The premiere performance was performed by the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall on June 10, 1939, under the baton of Sir Adrian Boult.  The work is based on the folk tune “Dives and Lazarus” and arranged by Vaughan Williams as a hymn tune “Kingsfold,” appearing as “O Sing a Song of Bethlehem,” in The English Hymnal as “I Heard the Voice of Jesus say,” (no. 574 in the original 1906 edition).

Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus structure:
 Introduction and Theme: Adagio, B modal minor
 Variant I: B modal minor
 Variant II: Allegro moderato, B modal minor
 Variant III: D modal minor
 Variant IV: L’istesso tempo
 Variant V: Adagio, B modal minor

Symphony No 5 in D: Return to the more romantic style of the earlier Pastoral Symphony written between 1938 and 1943.  Symphony No 5 in D, stemmed from then unfinished operatic work, The Pilgrim’s Progress, an opera or morality play in which Vaughan Williams like to refer it to while discussing the work.  Vaughan Williams struggled with his fifth, and at one point doubted the new work, but later changed his mind after hearing orchestrated.   The work was dedicated without permission to the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius at the time of the first publishing.  When permission was gained, Sibelius wrote: “I heard Dr. Ralph Vaughan Williams’ new Symphony in Stockholm under the excellent leadership of Malcolm Sargent…This Symphony is a marvelous work … the dedication made me feel proud and grateful…I wonder if Dr. Williams has any idea of the pleasure he has given me?   The composition scored for two flutes (one doubling piccolo), oboe, cor anglais, two clarinets, two bassoons, two French horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, and strings. It is structured in the four-movement form:  Preludio, Scherzo, Romanza, and Passacaglia.

Symphony No 6 in E minor: Vaughan Williams composed this work in 1946–47, during and after right after World War II.  BBC Symphony Orchestra first performed the symphony under the baton of conductor Sir Adrian Boult on April 21, 1948.  Symphony No 6 in E minor, within a year span gained in popularity with having over 100 performances, which also included the US Premiere by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Serge Koussevitzky on August 7, 1948.  The first New York performance was the following January with the New York Philharmonic under Leopold Stokowski conducting and immediately recorded it, declaring, “this is music that will take its place with the greatest creations of the masters.”  However, Vaughan Williams had struggled and had mixed feelings about the quality of this work and threatened several times to tear up the draft throughout the development of the work.  The program note for the first performance reflected and suggested his discord about the work.

The Pilgrim’s Progress: An opera by Ralph Vaughan Williams, based on John Bunyan’ allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress.  Vaughan Williams described the work as a ‘Morality Play’ rather than an opera and with all intent to perform on stage. Vaughan Williams himself prepared the libretto, with inserts from the Bible and text from Ursula Wood, his second wife.  Vaughan Williams also made changes to the original story including altering the name of the central character from ‘Christian’ to ‘Pilgrim,’ so to bring universality to the spiritual message.  The opera contains 41 individual singing roles. The first performance was at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden on April 26, 1951, with Leonard Hancock as the conductor, whom Vaughan Williams had personally chosen to conduct the premiere.  The opera consists of Prologue, Act 1, Act 2, Act 3, Act 4, Entr’acte and Epilogue.

Symphony No 7 Sinfonia Antartica: Vaughan Williams composed the music for the film, Scott of the Antarctic in 1947, and inspired by Captain Robert Falcon Scott.  A British Royal Navy officer and explorer, who led two expeditions to the Antarctic, the work was started in 1949, and composition completed in 1952.   The first performance took place on January 14, 1953, in Manchester with Sir John Barbirolli conducting the Hallé Orchestra, and with soprano soloist Margaret Ritchie.  Rafael Kubelík conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra gave the first American performance on April 2, 1953.  Sinfonia Antarctica (“Antarctic Symphony”) is the Italian title given by Vaughan Williams to his seventh symphony.  A typical performance lasts around 45 minutes. There are five movements and Vaughan Williams specified that the third movement leads directly into the fourth. The score includes a brief literary quotation at the start of each movement. They are sometimes spoken or read aloud in performance (and recordings), however, the composer did not specify that quotations were intended to form part of a performance of the work.

1. Prelude: To suffer woes which hope thinks infinite, to forgive wrongs darker than death or night, to defy power which seems omnipotent … Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent: This is to be good, great and joyous, beautiful and free, This is alone life, joy, empire, and victory.

2. Scherzo: Moderato: There go the ships, and there is that Leviathan whom thou hast made to take his pastime therein.

3. Landscape: Lento: Ye ice falls!  Ye that from the mountain’s brow a down enormous ravines slope amain — Torrents, methinks, that heard a mighty voice, and stopped at once amid their maddest plunge! Motionless torrents! Silent cataracts!

4. Intermezzo: Andante Sostenuto: Love, all alike, no season knows, nor clime, nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.

5. Epilogue: Alla Marcia, Moderato (non troppo allegro): I do not regret this journey; we took risks, we knew we took them, things have come out against us, therefore we have no cause for complaint.

‘Hodie’ This Day: A Christmas cantata by Vaughan Williams and was composed between 1953 and 1954.  The cantata, considered his last major choral-orchestral and the work premiered at Worcester Cathedral under Vaughan Williams’ baton.  It was part of the Three Choirs Festival, on September 8, 1954.  The cantata, in 16 movements, scored for chorus, boys’ choir, organ, and large orchestra, and features tenor, baritone, and soprano soloists.

Instrumental elements of the orchestra: Three flutes, piccolo, two oboes, cor anglais, two clarinets in B-flat, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four French horns in F, three trumpets in B-Flat, two trombones, bass trombone, tuba; a percussion section that includes timpani, bass drum, snare drum, tenor drum, tubular bells, cymbals, glockenspiel and triangle; celesta, piano, organ; strings; one SATB mixed choir and one boys’ choir; and one soprano soloist, one tenor soloist and one baritone soloist.

Hodie is considered a synthesis of Vaughan Williams’ entire artistic tenure, utilizing creative motifs from his other works, Bible texts, quotes are interwoven with poetry, in his cantata. Musically, various movements may suggest kin to different earlier works, unlike many other composers drawing upon their earlier works for inspiration to create new works.  Thematically, Hodie is bonded together by three thrusts, which recur throughout its length. The first is heard on the word “Gloria” in the first movement and recurs when the word is introduced again. The other is in the first narration, reappearing at the beginning of the epilogue. The final setting of Milton’ text uses the same melody as the first song for soprano, with different orchestration.

Symphony No 8 in D Minor: Composed between 1953 and 1955.  Sir John Barbirolli conducted the premiere on May 2, 1956, with the Hallé Orchestra.  Eugene Ormandy gave the Eighth Symphony its U.S. Premiere with the Philadelphia Orchestra on October 5, 1956.  In 1957 on June 30, Leopold Stokowski conducted Eighth Symphony with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall in the presence of the composer.  The Eighth Symphony is the shortest of Vaughan Williams’ nine symphonies, with a performance clocking typically at just under a half hour. The Eighth Symphony is described as remarkably inventive, with the composer’s exploration in sonority.  The work expanded percussion section, along with three tuned gongs.  The primary movements make use of the winds and strings sections, respectively.  The Eighth Symphony like the Fourth symphony ends with a loud conclusion. Much in contrast with all other Vaughan Williams symphonies that have quiet conclusions or Diminuendo Niente, and such was the Vaughan Williams signature.

The symphony is for a large orchestra:
   Woodwinds: 2 flutes (2nd doubling on piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets (in B♭), 2 bassoons
   Brass: 2 horns (in F), 2 trumpets (in B♭), 3 trombones
   Percussion: timpani, vibraphone, triangle, glockenspiel, side drum, cymbals, tubular bells,
   tuned gongs, bass drum,  xylophone, celesta
   Strings: 2 harps, and strings

The work consists of four movements:
1. Fantasia (Variazioni Senza Tema)
2. Scherzo Alla Marcia
3. Cavatina
4. Toccata

Symphony No, 9 in E minor: The last symphony composed by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Vaughan Williams composed it from 1956 to 1957. The premiere performance was in London on April 2, 1958, and performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Malcolm Sargent. A programmatic symphony based on Thomas Hardy’ book Tess of the d’Urbervilles. The programmatic elements eventually disappeared as work on the composition progressed, however, existing sketches indicate in the early stages of composition, certain passages associate themselves to specific people and events in the novel.  Ralph Vaughan Williams died four months after the premiere, on August 26, 1958.

The work consists of four movements:
1. Moderato Maestoso
2. Andante Sostenuto
3. Scherzo: Allegro pesante
4. Finale: Andante Tranquillo


 The music of Ralph Vaughan Williams is like an amalgamation of his musical intellect, internal emotional state, life experiences, and personal relationships.  Ralph Vaughan Williams had a natural gift or an intuitive way of incorporating personal and biographical elements into his creative process of composing classical music; so unique and successful, it became a 20th-century musical signature.

The Reverend A. V. Williams, whose early death influenced and changed Ralph Vaughan Williams’ life and religious outlook, and for a while, as a young man he was an atheist, later in life as an adult became agnostic.  Ralph Vaughan Williams was a complex man, who dealt with extraordinary internal conflicts and ironies, so it comes to no surprise this agnostic’s life work in music played an instrumental role in helping and organizing people of faith sing and pray.  His work with editing the English Hymnals, working with local church choral groups, and of course such masterpiece works such as Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus and Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis are not only material evidence but highlights the composer’s deeply spiritual nature and deposition, regardless of his agnosticism.

When it came to British classical music in the 20th century, composers like Hubert Parry, Charles Villiers Stanford, Edward Elgar, Frederick Delius, Gustav Hoist, John Ireland, Percy Grainger, and Benjamin Britten are indeed among the pillars and standouts of British classical music history. Then there is the unique mark of composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose symphonic style captured the minds and imaginations of the entire country of England, and then the world.  Ralph Vaughan Williams’ music was not only appreciated in the 20th century, but his music continues to thrive into the 21st century with orchestras and audiences around the world, at a time never forgotten.


Sources:  Ralph Vaughan Williams Society, BBC, and Wikipedia

Dedicated in memory of my Grandfather: Elighio (Lee) Vicente Peña, Veteran of World War I (France) 1917-1918

All Rights Reserved, Ralph Vaughan Williams: Gentle Genius of 20th Century British Classical Music © Richard Anthony Peña 2016

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