Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Fantasia on Greensleeves Fantasia on a Theme of ThomasTallis
Ralph Vaughan Williams was born in the Gloucestershirevillage of Down Ampney in 1872, the son of a clergyman. His ancestry on bothhis father's and mother's side was of some intellectual distinction. His fatherwas descended from a family eminent in the law, while his maternal grandfatherwas a Wedgwood and his grandmother a Darwin. On the death of his father in 1875the family moved to live with his mother's father at Leith Hill Place inSurrey. As a child Vaughan Williams learned the piano and the violin, andreceived a conventional upper middle class education at Charterhouse, afterwhich he delayed entry to Cambridge, preferring instead to study at the RoyalCollege of Music, where his teachers included Hubert Parry and Walter Parratt,later Master of the Queen's Musick, both soon to be knighted. In 1892 he tookup his place at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he read History, but tookcomposition lessons from Charles Wood. After graduation in both History andMusic, he returned to the Royal College, where he studied composition withStanford, and, perhaps more significant, became a friend of a fellow-student,Gustav Holst. The friendship with Holst was to prove of great importance infrank exchanges of views on one another's compositions in the years thatfollowed.
In1897 Vaughan Williams married and took the opportunity to visit Berlin, wherehe had lessons from Max Bruch and widened his musical experience. In England heturned his attention to the collection of folk-music in various regions of the country,an interest that materially influenced the shape of his musical language. In1908 he went to Paris to take lessons, particularly in orchestration, fromRavel, and had by now begun to make a reputation for himself as a composer, notleast with the first performance in 1910 of his first symphony, A Sea Symphony,setting words by Walt Whitman, and his Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis inthe same year. The even tenor of his life was interrupted by the war, when heenlisted at once in the Royal Army Medical Corps as a private. 1914 was alsothe year of the London Symphony and of his rhapsodic work for violin andorchestra, The Lark Ascending. Three years later, after service in Salonicathat seemed to him ineffective, he took a commission in the Royal GarrisonArtillery and was posted to France. There he was also able to make some use ofhis abilities as a musician.
Afterthe war Vaughan Williams returned to the Royal College of Music, now as aprofessor of composition, a position he retained until 1938. In these years hecame to occupy a commanding position in the musical life of the country, with aseries of compositions that seemed essentially English, the apparent successorof Elgar, although his musical language was markedly different. The war of 1939brought the challenge of composition for the cinema, with notable scores forThe 49th Parallel in 1940 and a number of other films, culminating in 1949 inhis music for the film Scott of the Antarctic, the basis of the seventh of hissymphonies. Other works of the last decade of his life included two moresymphonies, the opera The Pilgrim's Progress, a violin sonata and concertos forharmonica and for tuba, remarkable adventures for an octogenarian. He remainedactive until his death in 1958.
Inthe Fen Country, described as a Symphonic Impression, was completed in April1904 and revised in 1905 and 1907, to be given its first performance in Londonin 1909 under Sir Thomas Beecham. Vaughan Williams revised the work again in1935 and it was published in 1969. Opening with a characteristic melody for thesolo cor anglais, the work reflects the composer's current interest infolk-music, which helps to form the shape of the thematic material. The coranglais is followed by a solo viola, an instrument that adds the final bars tomusic that suggests something of the course that the composer's music was totake.
TheNorfolk Rhapsody, first heard in a London performance by the Queen's HallOrchestra under Henry Wood in 1906, was revised in 1914. It makes use of threefolk-songs collected by Vaughan Williams in King's Lynn, The Captain'sApprentice, A Bold Young Sailor and On Board a Ninety-Eight, and was the firstof three such works, although the other two were later withdrawn. The first ofthe three folk-songs is introduced by a solo viola, freely as if improvising,after lightly sketched evocations of the Norfolk landscape, and it is thistheme that serves as a frame-work for the other folk-songs, introducedrespectively by the cor anglais and bassoons and cellos. The Captain'sApprentice returns as the work draws to a close, ending in the countrysidewhere it had started.
TheConcerto Grosso was written for the 21st anniversary of the Rural Music SchoolsAssociation in 1950 and first heard at the Royal Albert Hall in London inNovember of that year, played by a string orchestra of some four hundredplayers. The work was designed for three levels of technical skill, aconcertino of twenty or so skilled players, a tutti for those who could play inthird position and manage simple double stops, and an ad lib part, includingsections that only called for open strings. The imposing Intrada is followed bya humorous Burlesca Ostinata, starting with open strings. There is a relativelysubtle use of accompanying open strings in the Sarabande, hints of folk-song inthe Scherzo and a rousing March to start the last movement.
Theopera Sir John in Love, based on Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor andincorporating folk-songs, where these seemed appropriate, had been completed in1928. The Fantasia on Greensleeves, drawn from the introduction to the thirdact of the opera, was arranged in 1934 by Ralph Greaves for string orchestra,harp and one or two optional flutes. The work starts with the familiar melody,used to frame a lively contrasting folk-dance.
VaughanWilliams conducted the first performance of his Fantasia on a Theme by ThomasTallis at the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester in 1910. He revised the workin 1913 and 1919. The Fantasia takes a theme by the Elizabethan composer ThomasTallis that Vaughan Williams had included in his own English Hymnal, and isscored for double string orchestra and string quartet. It marks the trueemergence of the composer's own distinctive musical voice. After a short introductoryphrase, the opening motif of the theme is heard in the lower strings, before itis stated in full, to be repeated in more elaborate form, followed by a returnto the opening. A solo viola introduces a melody derived from the originaltheme, then taken up by the first violin, and treated by the quartet more orless in the imitative contrapuntal manner of an Elizabethan fantasia. The musicmoves forward to a passage for the solo violin and, in counterpoint to it, thesolo viola, delicately accompanied by the orchestra, skilfully deployed. Thesolo violin is heard again, ascending to the height, as the coda draws to aclose.