VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Songs of Travel / The House of Life
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Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Songs of Travel The House of Life Four Poems by Fredegond Shove
Ralph Vaughan Williams was born in theGloucestershire village of Down Ampney in 1872, theson of a clergyman. His ancestry on both his father's andmother's side was of some intellectual distinction. Hisfather was descended from a family eminent in the law,while his maternal grandfather was a Wedgwood and hisgrandmother a Darwin. On the death of his father in1875 the family moved to live with his mother's fatherat Leith Hill Place in Surrey. As a child VaughanWilliams learned the piano and the violin and received aconventional upper middle class education atCharterhouse, after which he delayed entry toCambridge, preferring instead to study at the RoyalCollege of Music, where his teachers included HubertParry and Walter Parratt, later Master of the Queen'sMusick, both soon to be knighted. In 1892 he took up hisplace at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he readHistory, but took composition lessons from CharlesWood. After graduation in both History and Music, hereturned to the Royal College, where he studiedcomposition with Stanford, and, perhaps moresignificantly, became a friend of a fellow-student,Gustav Holst. The friendship with Holst was to prove ofgreat importance in frank exchanges of views on oneanother's compositions in the years that followed.
In 1897 Vaughan Williams married and took theopportunity to visit Berlin, where he had lessons fromMax Bruch and widened his musical experience. InEngland he turned his attention to the collection of folkmusicin various regions of the country, an interest thatmaterially influenced the shape of his musical language.
In 1908 he went to Paris to take lessons, particularly inorchestration, from Ravel. By now he had begun tomake a reputation for himself as a composer, not leastwith the first performance in 1910 of A Sea Symphony,setting words by Walt Whitman, and his Fantasia on aTheme of Thomas Tallis in the same year. At theoutbreak of war in 1914 he enlisted at once in the RoyalArmy Medical Corps as a private. This was also the yearof the London Symphony and of his rhapsodic work forviolin and orchestra, The Lark Ascending. Three yearslater, after service in Salonica that seemed to himineffective, he took a commission in the Royal GarrisonArtillery and was posted to France. There he was alsoable to make some use of his abilities as a musician.
After the war Vaughan Williams returned to theRoyal College of Music, now as a professor ofcomposition, a position he retained until 1938. In theseyears he came to occupy a commanding place in themusical life of the country, with a series of compositionsthat seemed essentially English, the apparent successorof Elgar, although his musical language was markedlydifferent. The war of 1939 brought the challenge ofcomposition for the cinema, with notable scores for The49th Parallel in 1940 and a number of other films,culminating in 1949 in his music for the film Scott of theAntarctic, the basis of the seventh of his symphonies.
Other works of the last decade of his life included twomore symphonies, the opera The Pilgrim's Progress, aviolin sonata and concertos for harmonica and for tuba,remarkable adventures for an octogenarian.
The early songs of Vaughan Williams reflect thecontemporary interest in a form to which Parry andStanford had given much encouragement. Songs ofTravel, settings of poems by Robert Louis Stevenson,had its first performance in 1904 and was published intwo volumes in 1905 and 1907, with the ninth song onlyappearing posthumously, in 1960. The work, a unifiedsong-cycle, in spite of the method of its first publication,opens with the robust marching bass of The Vagabond,probably the best known of the set. Let beauty awake hasan accompaniment pattern of arpeggios, with the pacequickening for The Roadside Fire. Youth and Lovebrings echoes of the first song of the cycle and, at itsclimax, of The Roadside Fire. In Dreams introduces amore chromatic element into the vocal line, with itssyncopated accompaniment, and there is a certainradiance about The Infinite Shining Heavens, gentlyaccompanied by arpeggiated chords. Whither must Iwander?, first published separately in 1902, returns tothe key of the first song and is followed by Bright is thering of words, accompanied by boldly resonant chords,supported at first by octaves in the lowest register of thekeyboard. It is left to the posthumously published I havetrod the upward and the downward slope to form asummary and conclusion, with its references to TheVagabond and Bright is the ring of words.
The House of Life, settings of six sonnets by DanteGabriel Rossetti, was published and first performed in1904 in the Bechstein Hall recital that included Songs ofTravel. The poetic language of Rossetti is more elusivethan Stevenson's, reflecting Preraphaelite sensibilitiesthat had a particular contemporary appeal. The firstsong, Love-Sight, ends with an extended postlude inwhich thematic material is further developed. SilentNoon, which had been performed in an earlier recital, isaccompanied by chords of rich sonority, then shifting inkey and pace, before a brief passage of quasi recitativeand a return to the mood of the opening. Love'sMinstrels allows more dramatic depiction of elements inthe text, while Heart's Haven makes a less immediateeffect. Death in Love opens with a summons toattention, a figure that returns and is echoed in the finalpostlude. The cycle ends with Love's Last Gift, in whichthe composer responds sensitively to the verbal imagery,with a recurrent figure that leaves a familiar fingerprint.
Linden Lea, a setting of words by the Dorset dialectpoet William Barnes, remains the best known of all thesongs of Vaughan Williams. It was written in 1901 andappeared in the first number of The Vocalist, on therecommendation of Stanford, to be heard in London forthe first time in 1902. As with all these early songs,however, the settings lack the wit and facility of Britten,with accompaniments that perhaps reflect the relativeability of Vaughan Williams as a pianist.
The settings by Vaughan Williams of Four Poemsby Fredegond Shove, published and first performed in1925, mark a considerable development in techniqueand maturity. Fredegond Shove was the wife of aCambridge professor of economics, daughter of FredericMaitland, professor at Cambridge of the laws ofEngland, and niece of the composer's wife Adeline. Thecold desolation of Motion and Stillness is suggested inthe open fifths of the accompaniment, contrasted withthe full triads that provide a pattern of accompanimentfor Four Nights, with its passing of the seasons. Thenarrative of death in The New Ghost, more Freund Heinthan grim reaper, opens with a passage forunaccompanied voice, with the piano using the upperregister, and then, at the end, ascending into a far distantland. The group of songs ends with The Water Mill, forwhich the accompaniment depicts the turn of the millwheeland other homely details of the poem, illustrativetreatment largely absent from the early songs.Keith Anderson