VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Symphonies Nos. 7 and 8 (Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/ Christopher Dowie/ David Timson/ Kees Bakels/ Lynda Russell/ Waynflete Singers) (Naxos: 8.550737)
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Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Sinfonia antartica (Symphony No.7)
Symphony No.8 in D minor
Ralph Vaughan Williams was born in the Gloucestershire village of Down Ampneyin 1872, the son of a clergyman. His ancestry on both his father's and mother'sside was of some intellectual distinction. His father was descended from afamily eminent in the law, while his maternal grandfather was a Wedgwood and hisgrandmother a Darwin. On the death of his father in 1875 the family moved tolive with his mother's father at Leith Hill Place in Surrey. As a child VaughanWilliams learned the piano and the violin and received a conventional uppermiddle class education at Charterhouse, after which he delayed entry toCambridge, preferring instead to study at the Royal College of Music, where histeachers included Hubert Parry and Walter Parratt, later Master of the Queen'sMusick, both soon to be knighted. In 1892 he took up his place at TrinityCollege, Cambridge, where he read History, but took composition lessons fromCharles Wood. After graduation in both History and Music, he returned to theRoyal College, where he studied composition with Stanford, and, perhaps moresignificant, became a friend of a fellow-student, Gustav Holst. The friendshipwith Holst was to prove of great importance in frank exchanges of views on oneanother's compositions in the years that followed.
In 1897 Vaughan Williams married and took the opportunity to visit Berlin,where he had lessons from Max Bruch and widened his musical experience. InEngland he turned his attention to the collection of folk-music in variousregions of the country, an interest that materially influenced the shape of hismusical language. In 1908 he went to Paris to take lessons, particularly inorchestration, from Ravel, and had by now begun to make a reputation for himselfas a composer, not least with the first performance in 1910 of his firstsymphony, A Sea Symphony, setting words by Walt Whitman, and his Fantasiaon a Theme of Thomas Tallis in the same year. The even tenor of his life wasinterrupted by the war, when he enlisted at once in the Royal Army Medical Corpsas a private. 1914 was also the year of the London Symphony and of his rhapsodicwork for violin and orchestra, The Lork Ascending. Three years later,after service in Salonica that seemed to him ineffective, he took a commissionin the Royal Garrison Artillery and was posted to France. There he was also ableto make some use of his abilities as a musician.
After the war Vaughan Williams returned to the Royal College of Music, now asa professor 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 for The49th 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 died inAugust 1958, four months after the first performance of his last symphony.
In an essay on the subject in 1945 Vaughan Williams praises the disciplineinvolved in writing film- music, recommending it to teachers of composition. Hisessay contains much common sense on the matter, although he cannot help lookingforward to the possibility of a film that takes its origin from the musicitself. His music for Scott of the Antarctic was the seventh of his elevenfilm-scores, if the final The Vision of William Blake is to be included,a film that matches Blake's illustrations of the Book of Job with VaughanWilliams's Job: A Masque for Dancing. The story of Captain Scott's lastexpedition to the Antarctic, in a vain effort to be the first to reach the SouthPole, is well known, with the gallantry of Captain Oates in choosing deathrather than hamper the chance of survival of the other members of theexpedition, all of whom died. The film was a tribute to the heroism of Scott andhis companions. It provided Vaughan Williams with a necessary stimulus tooptimism, after the perceived desolation of his Sixth Symphony, which some hadseen as a 'war symphony'. Scott exemplified admirable qualities of loyalty,courage, firmness of purpose and, indeed, all that seemed best in the humanspirit, and the film was in accordance with the then policy of Ealing Studios.
It was directed by Charles Frend, with a cast led by John Mills.
The Sinfonia antartica, in which Vaughan Williams made further use ofthe music he had written for Scott of the Antarctic, was eventually completed in1953 and dedicated to Ernest Irving, musical director at Ealing Film Studiosfrom 1935 until his death in 1953. It was given its first performance inManchester on 14th January 1953 by the Halle Orchestra under Sir JohnBarbirolli. The work is scored for triple woodwind, four horns, three trumpets,three trombones, tuba, timpani and a percussion section that includes triangle,cymbals, side-drum, tenor drum, bass drum, gong, bells, glockenspiel, xylophone,vibraphone, wind-machine and celesta, in addition to a harp, piano, organ andstrings, with a female chorus and soprano soloist.
Each movement of the symphony is preceded, in the published score, by aquotation, the opening Andante maestoso with words from Shelley's PrometheusUnbound:
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, joyous, beautiful and free,
This is alone life, joy, empire and victory.
The music that follows makes use of the title-music of the film and fourthematic elements, associated in turn with the antarctic wilderness, ice, fogand the unknown. The opening theme is based on an ascending modal scale andaptly suggests the frightening grandeur of the Antarctic. This is followed by amysterious evocation of the icy wilderness, with harp, piano and xylophoneproviding a background to the thematic material, then taken up by the sopranosoloist and women's voices, wordless and curiously disembodied. The wind-machineis heard, an instrument the inclusion of which in a symphony aroused a measureof contemporary critical hostility, before a fragment of the principal themeleads to an episode that makes icy use of glockenspiel, vibraphone and celesta.
Tremolo violins appear, in accompaniment of a motif for flutes, clarinet and coranglais, the soprano soloist leading then towards a distant trumpet fanfare andthe mounting climax and challenge of the final section.
The Scherzo is prefaced by words from Psalm CIV
There go the ships
and there is that Leviathon
whom thou hast made to take his pastime therein.
Leviathan duly appears in the movement, whales and penguins evoked in a scorethat continues to make the fullest use of orchestral colour, used pictoriallyand providing a contrast to the sombre menace of the first movement.
At the heart of the symphony lies the slow movement, Landscape. Here thesuperscription i