The son of a vicar (and Charles Darwin was his great-uncle), Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) became one of the most popular English composers. He studied under Charles Villiers Stanford and Hubert Parry at the Royal College of Music, but also read history and music at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he palled around with the philosophers Bertrand Russell and G.E. Moore. He also went to Germany for lessons with Max Bruch, but ultimately rejected the 19th century German Romantic style Friendships with fellow RCM students Gustav Holst and Leopold Stokowski later bore more fruit, in different ways: Stokowski, who moved to the United States, became RVW's biggest supporter there; Holst and Vaughan Williams critiqued each others' work and joined in the study and collection of English folk songs. "The knowledge of our folk songs did not so much discover for us something new, but uncovered something which had been hidden by foreign matter," Vaughan Williams said.
Vaughan Williams's progress was interrupted by World War I. One of the stories from early in that period of his life reminds us that homeland security paranoia is not new. His beautiful The Lark Ascending was sketched (in its original form for violin and piano) while watching troop ships leave for France at the start of World War I; a boy mistook this for some sort of code, and reported him as a spy to a police officer who arrested the composer. Pretty funny in retrospect regarding a work so loved by the English -- who do venerate their native sons -- that they have repeatedly voted it most the most popular classical work in various surveys.
He enlisted as a private in the Royal Army Medical Corps; later he switched to the artillery, which permanently harmed his hearing (late in life, he became deaf). As with so many artists, his wartime experiences influenced his later output. He spent the next twenty years establishing a distinctive style that was nonetheless somehow quintessentially English, sometimes called pastoral and generally avoiding extremes. Then, in the midst of the world-wide depression, his style developed an edge (though he denied that it had anything to do with any events anywhere), but he was sufficiently well established as a national icon that his popularity survived. Nor has it diminished since then.
Always a staunch booster of English composers, Sir Adrian Boult (1889-1983) worked closely with Vaughan Williams. After impressing RVW with his leadership in the second London performance of the "London" Symphony (No. 2), Boult led the premieres of Vaughan Williams's "Pastoral," Fourth, Sixth, and Ninth Symphonies. Boult's ego-less efficiency and restrained yet not unemotional interpretations suited much of Vaughan Williams's output. While Boult's '50s cycle for Decca (all but Nos. 8-9 in mono) has more vigor and tautness, and was supervised for Nos. 1-8 by the composer, the later EMI set (all but one recording dating from 1967-71) has greater warmth and lyricism and is stereo throughout. Collectors who aren't bothered by mono sound and want only the symphonies should definitely opt for the Decca set, though.
A Sea Symphony, RVW's first symphony, was not numbered, a practice he continued for decades. He began it when he was 30, and it stands apart from his other symphonies for its use of choir throughout, with a baritone soloist in three movements plus a soprano soloist in two of those, singing texts of Walt Whitman (commentator Michael Steinberg calls it "more a cantata than a symphony"), and for its length, around 65-70 minutes, with the finale alone a half-hour long. (It was Bertrand Russell who had introduced Vaughan Williams to Whitman's work.) The movements are I. A Song for All Seas, All Ships; II. On the Beach at Night, Alone; III. Scherzo: The Waves; IV. The Explorers. Near the end of its seven-year gestation, RVW spent three months studying with Ravel, and some have found a French Impressionist influence in the work's use of pentatonic and whole-tone scales. It was premiered with the composer conducting at the Leeds Festival on October 12 1910, his 38th birthday.
His next work in the form, A London Symphony, is more conventional, though it might not have been a symphony at all if not for the encouragement of fellow composer George Butterworth, who urged RVW to write an instrumental symphony, after which he developed some tone poem sketches in that direction. The four-movement work is dedicated to Butterworth. It was premiered in 1914, but twice received significant revisions after that (1920 and 1933); each time, it got shorter. Boult plays the final '33 edition, which was the one the composer endorsed as the official version; the original is part of the late Sir Richard Hickox's excellent digital cycle and is a worthy complement.
The title of A Pastoral Symphony refers to the fields of France on which World War I was fought, and features a trumpet cadenza in the second movement that was inspired by hearing a bugler misplay an octave as a seventh. Including a wordless soprano part, it's a meditative work with no fast sections except for the coda of the third movement: I. Molto moderato; II. Lento moderato – Moderato maestoso; III. Moderato pesente; IV. Lento.
Perhaps tired of discussing the supposed programs of the three titled symphonies, RVW published his Fourth (1935), still unnumbered, as simply Symphony in F minor. Dedicated to another English composer, Arnold Bax, it's much more austere and dissonant than what came before it. Though Vaughan Williams, in the wake of the surprise at the change of his style, was quoted as saying, "I don't know if I like it, but it's what I meant," one suspects his belief in it was rather stronger than that suggests, as it's the only symphony he made a studio recording of. (Thatfiery 1937 performance [currently available from Dutton and Pearl, and formerly on Koch as well] is a must-hear, and a contrast to Boult's softer account.) Less ambiguously, Sir William Walton called it "the greatest symphony since Beethoven."
The Symphony in D major (the publisher numbered it No. 5), written in 1938-43, draws heavily on another work-in-progress of that period, his opera The Pilgrim's Progress. Though it's a very quiet work, there's still a great deal of harmonic tension, and though it's in four movements, they are not quite standard forms: I. Preludio; II. Scherzo; III. Romanza; IV. Passacaglia. The composer conducted the 1943 premiere at a Proms concert at Royal Albert Hall, which seems rather a mismatch between that series' casualness and the symphony's restrained dynamics. Amusingly, RVW originally dedicated it "To Jean Sibelius, without permission," but then Boult arranged official permission from the great Finnish composer (a big influence on Vaughan Williams's post-WWI work), who called it "a marvelous work." Look also for a 1952 Proms recording led by the composer (Somm).
RVW started his mostly grim Symphony in E minor in 1944 and finished it in 1947, but despite wartime shadows, it quickly became the most popular English symphony in 40 years. The first movement opens restlessly, then has a cartoonish, rhythmically lively section halfway between a march and a jazz band, with a lush oasis of lyrical melody shortly before the recapitulation. The second movement is nearly Shostakovichian in its motoric menace, while the Scherzo is a violent explosion of emphatic drumbeats, rushing strings, and burly brass. Then comes the stunningly quiet fourth movement, utterly different from all that came before it and producing an unearthly sense of unease. Some guessed that it depicted a post-nuclear apocalyptic wasteland, but the composer refused to be pinned down as to its meaning.
My favorite RVW orchestral work is the Sinfonia antartica, which drew heavily on his 1947 score for the film Scott of the Antarctic. Written in 1949-52, it was premiered by Sir John Barbirolli in 1953. It's spectacularly dramatic, and besides the usual orchestration includes soprano soloist, female chorus, organ, wind machine, and lots of percussion. Each of the five movements includes a literary quotation in the score, and a few recordings recite them, including Boult's on Decca with Sir John Gielgud.
The Eighth, in D minor, was composed in 1953-55 and is RVW's shortest symphony and his most unusual (and also the first he numbered himself). The first movement Fantasia is seven "variations without a theme"; the Scherzo is a march for winds only; the slow Cavatina is a five-part Rondo for strings only and paraphrases the chorale "O Sacred Head, Now Wounded"; the Toccata finale leaves its key uncertain (D minor or D major).
The Ninth, in E minor, was written in 1956-57 and premiered by Malcolm Sargent in 1958, RVW's last year of life. At its start, he based it on Thomas Hardy's novel Tess of the d'Urbervilles, but this plan was not followed through all the way, though early versions of the first two (of four) movements include Tess-inspired headings. Ultimately, though, it became a sort of career wrap-up, with the opening theme of the second movement quoting A Sea Symphony, and the presence of saxophones looking back to the Sixth Symphony -- though not stylistically. Not popular at first (the English premiere was a bit of a mess, apparently), its stature has risen in the intervening decades
Also included in Boult's concisely boxed eight-CD EMI set are most of the other major orchestral works: the solemn Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, the playful Aristophanic suite The Wasps, the lovely early tone poem In the Fen Country, the gorgeous violin feature The Lark Ascending (Boult's first Vaughan Williams premiere), the popular Fantasia on "Greensleeves," Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1, the wind ensemble work English Folk Song Suite, the Piano Concerto in its arrangement for two pianos, and Job: A Masque for Dancing (dedicated to Boult). Of special note -- partly because it's a little surprising to find a vocal work in this set – is the Serenade to Music, a setting for 16 singers and orchestra of an excerpt from Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, performed here by an excellent group including Sheila Armstrong and Ian Partridge. Alas, EMI includes no texts, either for the Serenade to Music or for Symphony No. 1 (and the listed four tracks for No. 1 don't match the disc's 15 tracks). Still, especially at budget price, this set is easily recommended.
Vaughan Williams's main non-orchestral output came in choral music. Though this is unusual for modern composers, it's not so surprising from the man who said, "We pupils of Parry have, if we have been wise, inherited from Parry the great English choral tradition which Tallis pass on to Byrd, Byrd to Gibbons, Gibbons to Purcell, Purcell to Battishill and Greene, and they in turn through the Wesleys to Parry. He has passed the torch to us, and it is our duty to keep it alight." Considering that Vaughan Williams was an agnostic, it had to be his belief in English musical tradition that kept him composing so much sacred music.
One of the most beautiful large-scale sacred choral works of the 20th century, Vaughan Williams's a cappella Mass in G minor (1922) looked back to England's Elizabethan period and to chant. This lends an archaic quality to music that, nonetheless, is unmistakably his thanks to its modern modality and his trademark parallel motion and hints of folksong simplicity. Its relatively austere harmonies undulate gently, occasionally stiffening for more dramatic passages. The five motets are nicely varied; organist Thomas Fitches joins on a few, including the famous (well, among choir mavens) "O clap your hands."
This 1992 recording brings together two large works for soloists, chorus, and orchestra. Dona nobis pacem (1936) has a familiar liturgical title, but besides that Latin Requiem movement, RVW included texts from three Walt Whitman poems, Old Testament prophets, and a House of Commons speech to make it an anti-war work. The oratorio Sancta Civitas (The Holy City), which RVW named as his favorite of his choral works, was written in 1923-25. Though most of the text comes from the Book of Revelation, the composer focuses not on the apocalyptic battle between good and evil, but rather on the descriptions of the greatness of the city of Babylon. Hickox is expert in this sort of repertoire, and these sectionalized works flow organically in his hands. (Though it can be found in a few boxes, this is not in print or on iTunes as a single CD; it's easily found used, though.)
The main work on this compilation of mid-'60s recordings is the nearly hour-long Hodie, subtitled "A Christmas Cantata" ("Hodie" is Latin for "This Day"). Composed in 1953-54, sets not only liturgical texts but also poetry (Milton, Hardy, etc.) and displays a variety of Vaughan Williams's styles, from gaudy pomp to archaic solemnity to hushed pensiveness. There are moments along its 16-movement span that are less than inspired, but the best touches -- especially in the three last movements: the open fifths in "The March of the Three Kings," the gorgeous a cappella chorale in "No sad thought his soul afright," and the mysterious setting for soloists of "In the beginning was the Word…" at the opening of the finale -- are spine-tingling. The soloists -- mezzo-soprano Janet Baker, tenor Richard Lewis, and baritone John Shirley-Quirk -- are a dream team, the Bach Choir and the Choristers of Westminster Abbey combine for a big, typically "straight" English choral sound, and the supporting and punctuating accompaniment by the London Symphony Orchestra is perfectly balanced by David Willcocks. The filler item that opens the disc, the four-movement Fantasia on Christmas Carols, is a more minor and less familiar work. Rather than profundity, it aims for cheery celebration, and achieves it. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based editor, poet, and composer. He has in a sense collaborated with Ms. Ono, as he composed music for "Hide and Seek Piece" from her book Grapefruit. It is part of his 50-song cycle Japanese Dedications.