VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Symphony No. 4 / Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1 / Flos Campi
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Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Symphony No. 4 Flos Campi Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1
Ralph Vaughan Williams was born in theGloucestershire village of Down Ampney in 1872, theson of a clergyman. His ancestry on both his father'sand mother's side was of some intellectual distinction.
His father was descended from a family eminent in thelaw, while his maternal grandfather was a Wedgwoodand his grandmother a Darwin. On the death of hisfather in 1875 the family moved to live with hismother's father at Leith Hill Place in Surrey. As a childVaughan Williams learned the piano and the violin andreceived a conventional upper middle class educationat Charterhouse, 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 uphis place 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 moresignificant, became a friend of a fellow-student,Gustav Holst. The friendship with Holst was to proveof great 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 offolk-music in various regions of the country, an interestthat materially influenced the shape of his musicallanguage. In 1908 he went to Paris to take lessons,particularly in orchestration, from Ravel. By now hehad begun to make a reputation for himself as acomposer, not least with the first performance in 1910of A Sea Symphony, setting words by Walt Whitman,and his Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis in thesame year. At the outbreak of war in 1914 he enlistedat once in the Royal Army Medical Corps as a private.
This was also the year of the London Symphony and ofhis rhapsodic work for violin and orchestra, The LarkAscending. Three years later, after service in Salonicathat seemed to him ineffective, he took a commissionin the Royal Garrison Artillery and was posted toFrance. There he was also able to make some use of hisabilities 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 ofcompositions that seemed essentially English, theapparent successor of Elgar, although his musicallanguage was markedly different. The war of 1939brought the challenge of composition for the cinema,with notable scores for The 49th Parallel in 1940 and anumber of other films, culminating in 1949 in hismusic for the film Scott of the Antarctic, the basis ofthe seventh of his symphonies. Other works of the lastdecade of his life included two more symphonies, theopera The Pilgrim's Progress, a violin sonata andconcertos for harmonica and for tuba, remarkableadventures for an octogenarian.
The immediate cause that led to the start of workon Symphony No.4 was a newspaper article describinga 'modern' European symphony, and VaughanWilliams continued work on it intermittently over thefollowing years. At first, as always, he was able to relyon the advice and support of his friend Gustav Holst,who died in 1934 and was never to hear the finishedwork. The first performance took place in April 1935,given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under AdrianBoult. It had a mixed reception. Some found in it areflection of the disturbed conditions of the time,others were critical of what seemed a break with thecomposer's earlier style. Vaughan Williams himself, asso often with his new compositions, expressed mixedfeelings about it. In his A Musical Autobiography headmits to borrowing the opening of the symphony fromBeethoven's Symphony No.9, but has no regrets,stressing that a composer should make sure that whathe writes is the right thing to say at that moment. Hewas later to insist that whatever he had written in thenew symphony was certainly what he had meant at thetime. The symphony was dedicated to Arnold Bax.
The disturbingly stark opening of the symphonyleads to an appassionato second subject. Themovement eventually reaches tranquillity in the finalLento, discord now resolved. Muted brass introduce theAndante moderato, followed by the woodwind andthen strings, with a violin melody over the pluckednotes of the lower strings. Solo oboe, clarinet andbassoon emerge, melodic lines contrapuntallyinterwoven, with increased prominence for the intervalof a fourth, first heard at the outset. After a tenseclimax the music unwinds, its Molto tranquilloconclusion led by the flute. The Scherzo offersimmediate contrast with its jaunty rhythms, answeredin the Trio, by the theme for bassoon, double bassoonand tuba, before the Scherzo resumes its course. TheFinale follows without a break, bringing a brassmarching accompaniment, and, as in the othermovements, motivic reminiscences. The triumphantprogress is interrupted by a characteristic hymn-likepassage for the strings, before the impetus is restored,leading to the fugal epilogue, its subject announced bytrombones and tuba. This is developed, together withother motivic elements from the movement, before thewhole ends in a return to the opening of the wholework.
Vaughan Williams's first Norfolk Rhapsody, basedon two folk-songs, was written in 1906 and firstperformed in the same year, later to be revised. Twofurther rhapsodies, written in the following year, werewithdrawn. The sustained notes of muted violins arepunctuated by flute and oboe, before the rhapsodicentry of the clarinet, followed by the solo viola, 'freelyas if improvising'. The first theme is The Captain'sApprentice to which the lively Bold Young Apprenticeprovides a contrast. The work ends in the tranquillity ofthe Norfolk countryside, where it had started.
Scored for solo viola, small orchestra and wordlesschorus, the suite Flos Campi (The Flower of the Field)was completed and first performed in 1925, with thegreat viola-player Lionel Tertis, to whom it isdedicated. The superscriptions to each of the sixmovements, taken from The Song of Songs, indicate thesource of the composition, however secular theirinterpretation. The first movement is prefaced by thewords Sicut Lilium inter spinas, sic amica mea interfilias ... Fulcite me floribus, stipate me malis, quiaamore langueo (As the lily among thorns, so is my loveamong the daughters ... Stay me with flagons, comfortme with apples; for I am sick of love). It will be noticedthat the words of the Authorised Version of the Bibledo not accurately translate the Vulgate, but thepublished score includes both versions. Oboe and violaintertwine in the bitonal opening, after which flute andviola join together, before the music moves on to aclimax, with the entry of the chorus. Jam enim hiemstransiit; imber abiit, et recessit; Flores apparuerunt interra nostra, Tempus putationis advenit; Vox turturisaudita est in terra nostra (For lo, the winter is past, therain is over and gone, the flowers appear on the earth,the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voiceof the turtle is heard in our land) is a movement ofrhapsodic meditation on the coming of spring. A violacadenza is continued into the third movement,Quaesivi quem diligit anima mea; quaesivi illum, etnon inveni ... 'Adjuro vos, filiae Jerusalem, siinveneritis dilectum meum, ut nuntietis et quia amorelangueo' ... 'Quo abiit dilectus tuus, O pulcherrimamulierum? Quo declinavit dilectus tuus? et quaeremuseum tecum.' (I sought him whom my soul lov