VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
On Wenlock Edge; The Lark Ascending; Flos Campi
Sinfonia da Requiem
By Michael Kennedy
The three works by Vaughan Williams on this disc mark his increasing mastery and originality after his three months of concentrated study with Ravel in Paris early in 1908. This had a dramatic effect on his style, for after his return he wrote the first of his works that are now regarded as echt-Vaughan Williams. Among them was the song-cycle On Wenlock Edge for tenor, piano and string quartet, settings of six poems from A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, which was enjoying a vogue among English composers of the period. The poems tell of unrequited or unfaithful love and of soldiers marching away to die in foreign fields. They are the nearest equivalent in English literature to the poems Schubert set and even nearer to the folk poetry of Des Knaben Wunderhorn which inspired Mahler.
Sketches of the last song in the cycle, ‘Clun’, suggest that it was begun in 1906. ‘Is my team ploughing?’ was composed in 1908 and performed in a version for voice and piano in London on 25 January 1909. The complete cycle was first performed in London on 15 November 1909 with Gervase Elwes as the tenor. Shortly after the First World War, Vaughan Williams supplied an accompaniment for full orchestra that was first heard in 1924.
Ravel’s compliment to Vaughan Williams was that “you are the only pupil who does not write my music”. But in On Wenlock Edge there are pronounced Ravelian features, acknowledged by Vaughan Williams himself who described them as the result of a “bad attack of French fever”. Nevertheless, a new freedom and assurance entered his music in addition to the ability to create genuine atmospheric effects. Thus, in ‘Bredon Hill’ we hear the contrasts between the languorous summer scene of the opening with its bees and larks, and the same snow-covered landscape on the day of the girl’s funeral as well as the tolling bells – minor thirds on the piano and open fifths on the strings – and the vibrations on the lower strings when “the steeples hum”.
Today, the prose and poetry of George Meredith (1828 1909) are a minority interest. The author of the novels The Egoist and Diana of the Crossways and of the wonderful sequence of sonnets Modern Love is sadly out of fashion. Before the First World War Meredith was a major literary figure, living near Dorking, Surrey, where Vaughan Williams also spent a large part of his life. His poem The Lark Ascending inspired Vaughan Williams to compose a Romance for violin and orchestra in which the violin's climbing trills and twists of melody illustrate the first verse of the poem:
“He rises and begins to round
He drops the silver chain of sound,
Of many links without a break,
In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake.”
Two bars introduce the violin’s first unaccompanied cadenza of ascending fifths from which, over muted orchestral strings, it drifts into the main theme. Oboe, clarinets and horns add variants of the principal subject while the soloist rhapsodises with it in time to close this first section with a shorter cadenza. Flute and clarinet begin an allegretto tranquillo episode, reminiscent of folk song, in which the chimes from the triangle and the woodwind’s trills and chirrupings are subsidiary to the violin’s rapturous song, which becomes more animated and decorative. The orchestral contribution ends with exquisite thirds derived from the first subject, leaving the soloist alone “winging up” until “lost in light”. Simple as the work may seem, it is of considerable originality and it captures the idyllic mood of a pre-1914 England, perhaps a pastoral Arcadia that never existed except in the imaginations of composer-poets.
Vaughan Williams completed the work for violin and piano in 1914 but left it until after the war, when he orchestrated and revised it, simplifying the violin part. The violin and piano version was first played on 15 December 1920. The orchestral version was premièred in June the following year.
Dating from 1924-25, Flos Campi is one of Vaughan Williams’ strangest compositions. He called it a suite although it is more like a rhapsody with running commentary by the solo viola. The orchestra is of chamber proportions and has an exotic oriental sound created by woodwind, harp, celesta, cymbals, tabor and triangle. Strings must number only 22 with chorus of 26 or 20. Each of the six movements is prefaced with a quotation in Latin from the Song of Solomon. These words are not sung: the chorus is wordless throughout. The quotations were selected because of their erotic content. It is the most explicitly sensuous of all Vaughan Williams’ works.
It is also one of his most subtly scored, with further evidence of his studies with Ravel in the delicacy of the colouring and in the obvious influence of Daphnis et Chloé. The bitonal opening for oboe and viola is the essence of languishing for love. In contrast is the pagan march in the fourth movement, its climax brazen and dissonant, and the ecstasy of the finale. Lionel Tertis was soloist in the first performance on 10 October 1925, with Sir Henry Wood conducting.
In September 1939, the Japanese Foreign Office commissioned orchestral works from composers in England, France, Germany (Richard Strauss), Italy and Hungary to celebrate the 2,600th anniversary of the foundation of the Japanese imperial dynasty. On advice from the British Council, the Japanese Ambassador in London offered the English commission to the 26-year-old Benjamin Britten, who was by then in North America. Told of this by his publisher, Boosey & Hawkes, Britten decided he would submit “a short symphony or symphonic poem, called Sinfonia da Requiem”. It would be dedicated to the memory of his parents (his mother had just died, his father three years earlier) and would express his anti-war convictions, which had been strengthened by the Spanish Civil War and the outbreak of the Second World War.
The commission was worth a decent sum of money. But something went awry with the negotiations and he only had official confirmation in April 1940. “I now find myself with the proposition of writing a symphony in about three weeks!” he wrote to his sister Beth. So the work was written “in a terrible hurry”. Britten completed it early in June and sent the score; he received the money and was invited to Tokyo for the celebrations. But the British authorities advised him not to go. Then, in November, he heard that the committee supervising the anniversary had rejected the work because it did not “express felicitations for the anniversary” and because of the “melancholy Christian nature” of the music. Britten was unabashed. “After all, I have had the money and spent it. The publicity of having work rejected by the Japanese Consulate for being Christian is a wow”. The score sent to Tokyo surfaced some years ago: it differs in some respects from the version we know and was performed for the first time in 1988 in Birmingham, conducted by Simon Rattle. Britten’s revised score was first performed in Carnegie Hall, New York on 29 March 1941 by the New York Philharmonic, conducted by John Barbirolli.
The three movements are played without a break. In the first two movements there is little to suggest a requiem for parents. The beating drums that open the Lacrymosa are surely the drums of approaching war. In their wake comes a slow, dragging funeral march in the lower strings beneath a repeated motif of rising and falling major sevenths on a saxophone. The opening theme is repeated in a fuller orchestral presentation, in which the tonal ambiguity of D minor and B flat in chords on woodwind and brass is pressed home. A type of development section builds to a tragic climax in which the opening theme combines with major and minor triads on trumpets and trombones. A steady drumming insists on the key of D, the momentum slackens and a sustained note for oboes and clarinets leads into the Dies Irae, the central scherzo.
This middle movement is, in Britten’s words, “a form of Dance of Death”, rather like a similar macabre movement in his earlier Our Hunting Fathers. Flutter-tonguing flutes precede disjointed fragments of themes in the strings together with the dance of death on trumpets. A series of orgiastic climaxes leads to the disintegration of the movement, leaving only a bass line to link to the third movement, the Requiem aeternam. “Peace and quiet rejoicing” is what Britten had in mind here and the music shows the strong influences of his teacher Frank Bridge (although others have detected the influence of Mahler elsewhere in the symphony). The key is the tonic, D major. Three flutes play a gentle melody (derived from a motif in the preceding movement), almost like a lullaby, over an ostinato of seven notes played by harp, bass clarinet and cello. A middle section provides a new slant on the Lacrymosa funeral dirge. Another brief climax is followed by the return of the lullaby and the Sinfonia rocks itself to sleep. “It is so personal and intimate a piece”, Britten wrote to a friend, “that it is rather like those awful dreams where one parades about the place naked – slightly embarrassing!”
© Michael Kennedy 2010