In my most recent offering for this series, which was mostly about Debussy and La Mer, I included the first movement of the attempt by one of Debussy's British contemporaries to depict the same oceanic material. Since many of the comments addressed said British contemporary, I decided that a survey of some of his work would be a good follow-up. So here, I present three more early works by Ralph Vaughan Williams: Norfolk Rhapsody #1, Fantasia for Double String Orchestra on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, and The Lark Ascending. Again, this is NOT the music of empire, it is a demonstration of what a gifted composer found in the fibers of his country and its folk music. Incidentally, "early" for Vaughan Williams means before his 40th birthday.
First, Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1. 1906 (revised in 1914), before he went to France to study with Ravel. If you wanted to know what impact his study of English folk music had on Vaughan Williams's work, here you have a prime example. This is based on a folk song he gathered, appropriately, in Kings Lynn, a fishing community in Norfolk; the song is called "The Captain's Apprentice." Rather grim, but tuneful. The video tells you all about it in a fairly meta way.
This is an orchestral setting which doesn't mess with the underlying melody too much for a biggish orchestra: 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, Clarinets in A and in E flat, 2 bassoons, 2 French horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, side drum, harp and strings. Someday maybe I'll do something about why musical scores are meticulous about everything but the strings section. It feels like something done by convention. Here, it's played by The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, Neville Mariner conducting.
Just as you heard the later Vaughan Williams in The Sea Symphony after the big whiz-bang choral introduction, you hear him here. My untutored ear thinks he already had a good concept of orchestration when he write this the first time, and that his time with Ravel expanded and refined it in the 1914 revision, which you're hearing here. A five minute quiet introduction, then, at 5:27, the tune is picked up by the clarinets, flutes and horn, then by the bassoons, celli and basses, and then ALL the orchestra joins for a nice jaunty version of the tune. Then we return to a quiet conclusion.
Next, the Fantasia for Double String Orchestra on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. Thomas Tallis was a fairly celebrated 16th century British composer (predating Henry Purcell by several decades). Vaughan Williams was engaged to revise the English Hymnal, and in 1906 he used a theme by Tallis (his Third Mode Melody) as the tune for Joseph Addison's (yes, that's the Addison in Addison and Steele, founders of The Spectator) hymn "When Rising From the Bed of Death." Here's the melody, and don't be alarmed at the end when the words of the hymn are spoken instead of sung.
Vaughan Williams liked the tune enough to arrange it in 1910 (and to further revise in in 1913 and 1919) for what was a three-part orchestra of strings: a full sized string orchestra, a "desk" (that's two players) from each section of the orchestra, and a string quartet. Or, in addition to a full-sized string orchestra, six violins, three violas, three celli and one double bass. The score demands that the full-sized orchestra be separated from the other two groups. Critics have said that Vaughan Williams enlarges and transforms the music, and I think that's a very fair assessment of what it does. It's lush string music, tranquil but tremendously affecting.
This is Tadaaki Otaka leading the strings of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales in a performance from last summer's Proms. It's slower than the versions conducted by Sir John Barbirolli and Eugene Ormandy, but you get to see at about 4:55 that the added string players are indeed performing in one of the upper balconies of the Royal Albert Hall. Just watch and listen and see how dry your eyes are at the end of the piece.
Whoever wrote the Wikipedia entry on this promoted the theory that Rafe was trying to make a double string orchestra sound like an organ. In a way, in a big loud section that begins at 10:42 in which Vaughan Williams transforms the Tallis theme into something else even more majestic, he does. Masterful use of the properties of a string orchestra too.
Finally, The Lark Ascending. A musical depiction (1914 for piano and violin, 1920 for the violin and orchestra version we'll listen to tonight.) of a 1895 poem of the same name by George Meredith. I'd give you the whole poem but it runs 122 lines, so here's the first few lines and a link to the whole thing.
HE rises and begins to round,The lark ("he" in the poem) is portrayed by a solo violin, and the most successful versions sound like birdsong. I've highlighted the lines that I think best describe what Rafe was trying to do with this orchestral almost-a-concerto.
He drops the silver chain of sound
Of many links without a break,
In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake,
All intervolv’d and spreading wide,
Like water-dimples down a tide
Where ripple ripple overcurls
And eddy into eddy whirls;
A press of hurried notes that run
So fleet they scarce are more than one,
Yet changingly the trills repeat
And linger ringing while they fleet,
Sweet to the quick o’ the ear, and dear
To her beyond the handmaid ear,
Who sits beside our inner springs,
Too often dry for this he brings,
Which seems the very jet of earth
At sight of sun, her music's mirth,
As up he wings the spiral stair,
A song of light, and pierces air
With fountain ardor, fountain play,
To reach the shining tops of day,
And drink in everything discern’d
An ecstasy to music turn’d,
The scoring: 2 flutes, 1 oboe, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 French horns, triangle, violin solo and strings; it can also be played by a chamber orchestra composed of one of each wind instrument and a reduced string section. Since the solo violin is the key to the piece, the rescaling probably doesn't make that much difference in the way it works. Incidentally, this and the Tallis Fantasia finished second and third in Classic FM's annual ranking of the favorite classic music in the British Isles,
Here, we have the violinist David Nolan performing with the London Philharmonic, Vernon Handley conducting.
It's marked andante sostenuto and the violin is only silent for a few bars in the middle of the piece. I'd provide you with more detail but it's close to when we usually publish these and my DSL connection is behaving badly. This is called a Romance for Violin and Orchestra; Vaughan Williams was working on this when the Great War began in 1914. He put it in a drawer and didn't return to it until 1919, while he was also working on what would be his "Pastoral" Symphony, and what you have here is a calm reflection of the English countryside with a lark singing his lungs out. We might visit that symphony later.
I was going to write about The London Symphony this week, but a glitch in the editing process wouldn't display the final movement in this diary no matter what I did. In two weeks, by itself, with a consideration what "revision" means (since, as you see above, Rafe revises, and the note accompanying the revision of the London Sympony is very forbidding) and how program music (like La Mer) is or is not program music depending on circumstances.