VAUGHAN-WILLIAMS: Willow-Wood / The Sons of Light / Toward the Unknown Region

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Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)

Willow-Wood Toward the Unknown Region The Sons of Light

The poems of the American Walt Whitman (1819-1892)were published in Leaves of Grass, a collected workswhich in successive editions over 35 years from 1855added new poems at each appearance. Vaughan Williamsmay have been first introduced to Whitman by his teacherStanford, who in his pioneering Elegiac Ode of 1884 hadbeen the first significant British composer to respond toWhitman's visionary non-sectarian stanzas and thefreedom of his verse. Ursula Vaughan Williams tells usthat from 1902 or 1903 Leaves of Grass in variouseditions was 'his constant companion'. The outcome ofthis absorption was A Sea Symphony, gradually broughtinto focus over seven years and first heard in 1910. Acompanion piece, started later but completed sooner, wasToward the Unknown Region. Vaughan Williamsremembered that when he and his friend Gustav Holst hadboth considered themselves 'stuck', they decided theyshould both set the same Whitman text from 'Whispers ofHeavenly Death' and jointly select the winner. They dulyawarded the palm to Vaughan Williams for this work. Itwas first performed at the Leeds Festival on 10th October1907 with the composer conducting (doubtless theFestival conductor, Stanford, insisted that his pupil shouldconduct his own work), but when, two months later, itfirst appeared in London at the Royal College of Music on10th December 1907 Stanford was on the podium.

Vaughan Williams referred to the work as a \song forchorus and orchestra" and it was announced thus at thefestival. Hubert Foss has pointed out that the openingmelody is almost identical to 'Love's Last Gift', the finalsong of Vaughan Williams's Rossetti sequence TheHouse of Life which included his popular song 'SilentNoon'. Percy Young has also drawn our attention toanother musical motif that Vaughan Williams subsumesinto his score when he looks to the psalm tune SineNomine 'and reaches a blazing climax in the final bars,emblematic of the ultimate triumph of the soul's destiny'.

The cantata Willow-Wood for baritone, women'svoices and orchestra first appeared as a scena for baritoneand piano in March 1903 when it was sung by CampbellMcInnes in a concert at St James's Hall, Piccadilly. AgainVaughan Williams set words from Dante GabrielRossetti's sequence The House of Life. The genesis ofthese early works seems to be interrelated, and MichaelKennedy has drawn our attention to a motif, also in thesong 'Love's Last Gift', which this time became theopening of Willow-Wood.

Vaughan Williams orchestrated Willow-Wood soonafter the first performance and later added an ad.lib.

women's chorus (much of it wordless), and in this form itwas performed at the Music League Festival in Liverpoolon 25th September 1909, for which Breitkopf and Hartelprinted the vocal score. There the soloist was thecelebrated baritone Frederic Austin, and the conductor theWelsh choral conductor Harry Evans. Despite somepositive press notices and the fact that the vocal score hadbeen published, it has not been heard again until now. Yetthe composer clearly retained an affection for it; eventhree years before his death he was attempting to get it republished.

Willow-Wood is the most substantial sequence in TheHouse of Life, consisting of four interlinked sonnets.

Commentators have attempted a number ofinterpretations of the richly-perfumed but opaqueimagery. However, a clue is given by the poet himself inan article he wrote in 1871. Referring to the first poemonly, Rossetti stated: 'the sonnet describes a dream ortrance of divided love momentarily re-united by thelonging fancy; and in the imagery of the dream, the faceof the beloved rises through deep dark waters to kiss thelover'. Vaughan Williams seems to have had no problemin coming to terms with the poems. His setting creates themusical equivalent of a Pre-Raphaelite tableau in whichthe evocative poetic images are translated into luxurianttextures. The work is a fine extended vehicle for thebaritone whose widely-ranging melodic line demonstratesthe composer's close affinity with the human voice.

Willow-Wood owes much of its impact to theorchestra and the atmosphere associated with thewomen's choir, especially when they vocalise, a VaughanWilliams fingerprint we are now familiar with from somany scores. Like the atmospheric recently re-discoveredNocturne (more from Whitman's Whispers of HeavenlyDeath) for baritone and orchestra, it is clear VaughanWilliams already had a formidable orchestral techniquewhich in its day, just before Debussy and Ravel weregenerally heard in Britain, must have been consideredvery advanced and possibly was not treatedsympathetically by Willow-Wood's no-nonsense firstconductor.

In 1946, the Musicians Benevolent Fund, givingeffect to a long-standing aspiration of the recentlydeceased Sir Henry Wood, revived regular annual StCecilia Day services in London, initially at St Sepulchre'swithout Newgate on Holborn Viaduct. From 1947 newworks were commissioned every year, starting with theVaughan Williams motet The Voice Out of the Whirlwind,though then with organ accompaniment. The choirassembled consisted of representatives from HisMajesty's Chapels Royal and Canterbury Cathedral, aswell as St Paul's Cathedral and Westminster Abbey,underlining the festival's standing from the outset. It wasfirst performed at St Sepulchre's on 22nd November1947.

Vaughan Williams's sturdy motet takes words fromthe book of Job as God speaks to Job from out of thewhirlwind. He adapted the music from the 'Galliard ofthe Sons of the Morning' in scene VIII of his 'masque fordancing', Job, and later orchestrated it for the Leith HillFestival, at Dorking on 16th June 1951. It is remarkablehow well the words fit what was intended as a balleticscore, making one wonder how far Vaughan Williamshad associated words and music in the first place.

Written for the New York World's Fair, FiveVariants of 'Dives and Lazarus' was first performed atCarnegie Hall by the New York Philharmonic-SymphonyOrchestra conducted by Sir Adrian Boult, on 10th June1939. The same concert saw the first performance of SirArthur Bliss's barn-storming Piano Concerto, and waspreceded by Walter Piston's noisy orchestral Prelude andFugue. The American announcer, having trouble with thepronunciation of 'Dives', interpreted as a single syllable,contented himself with 'Five Variants of an old Englishcarol'.

Vaughan Williams writes in the score: 'Thesevariants are not exact replicas of original tunes, but ratherreminiscent of various versions in my own collection andthose of others.' While the nearest example listed by thefolk-song collector Cecil Sharp was collected at the RossWorkhouse, Herefordshire, in 1921, in fact the tune canbe traced to the sixteenth century as a carol sung to thewords 'Come all ye faithful Christians' which VaughanWilliams had known from childhood. Each of the fivevariants was suggested by a different version of the tune.

The first British performance came on 1st November1939 at the Colston Hall in Bristol, where the BBCSymphony Orchestra had been evacuated on the outbreakof war. Like the Tallis Fantasia it is a score which worksits own magic in a large space, and touchingly, it was alsoplayed in Westminster Abbey on the interment ofVaughan Williams's ashes on 19th September 1958.

In 1950 the viola player Bernard Shore, in hiscapacity as Staff Inspector of Schools in Music at theMinistry of Education, on behalf of the Schools MusicAssociation, asked Vaughan Williams if he would write awork for a large choir of schoolchildren to be performedwith orchestra in the Royal Albert Hall at their secondfestival in 1951. Vaughan Williams at first refused,claiming he knew nothing about writing for childrens'choirs but then agreed, possi
Disc: 1
The Sons of Light
1 Toward the Unknown Region
2 Willow-Wood
3 The Voice out of the Whirlwind
4 5 Variants of ‘Dives and Lazarus’
5 I. Darkness and Light
6 II. The Song of the Zodiac
7 III. The Messengers of Speech
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