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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Vaughan Williams and the Voice

I have to confess up front that this post is a complete indulgence for me, one of those surveys in which I want to share with you some music I love but which is not widely known. It's all by one composer, namely Ralph Vaughan Williams. (And, for the record, he pronounced his first name as "Rafe".)

Vaughan Williams was one of the most important British composers of the 20th century. His long life (he lived from 1872 to 1958) left us a huge legacy of orchestral and vocal music, and in a previous post in this blog I surveyed all nine of his remarkable symphonies. In this article I want to look at the amazing diversity of Vaughan Williams's music for the human voice. There's a lot of it, yet a great deal of it is only known to specialists, which is a pity. Vaughan Williams wrote for the human voice in so many forms - operas, choral music, songs - and I want to give you the chance to hear lots of examples in the hope that it might inspire you to explore further on your own.

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1913)

It may come as a surprise to discover that in addition to some smaller theatrical vocal works, Vaughan Williams wrote four operas; none is in the regular repertoire today. Hugh the Drover is the most conventional, a romantic comedy set in the Cotswolds. It was first performed in 1914, and while its subject matter and tone might seem twee to some, it contains some beautiful and stirring music. [listen]

Vaughan Williams's other major operas are Sir John in Love, his version of the Falstaff story (premiered in 1929), Riders to the Sea, a one-acter written in the late 20s and early 30s, and his magnum opus, The Pilgrim's Progress, which occupied him for decades and was premiered in 1951. I'll come back to The Pilgrim's Progress later.

At the other end of the spectrum, Vaughan Williams was a gifted writer of songs. His researches into English folksong made him an authority on the subject (at the same time his Hungarian contemporaries, Béla Bartók and Zoltan Kodály, were doing much the same thing with their own musical heritage) and folksong inspires much - but by no means all - of his own songs. Perhaps best-known is the cycle of Robert Louis Stevenson settings called Songs of Travel which was completed in 1904. [listen]

Vaughan Williams wrote about 17 stand-alone songs, plus numerous cycles like Songs of Travel. Most interestingly, he didn't limit himself to piano accompaniment, either, although most are with piano. The cycle completed in 1909, On Wenlock Edge, sets poems by AE Housman, and the tenor voice is accompanied by piano and string quartet. [listen] In a later Housman cycle called Along the Field, written in 1927, Vaughan Williams dispenses with the piano entirely and has the voice accompanied by a single violin. [listen]

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1921)

On a similarly intimate scale is the cycle of Blake songs which he wrote in 1957, the year before his death. In these the tenor voice is accompanied by a solo oboe. By the end of his life Vaughan Williams's style was condensed, sparse and often far removed from the "English pastoral" label with which he is often unfortunately too-often encumbered. The yearning nature of the oboe seemed to bring out a special emotional state in Vaughan Williams and the Ten Blake Songs are a perfect example of that. The songs were written for a film, The Vision of William Blake, and they occasionally make reference to the composer's ballet Job, written two decades before, which was inspired by Blake's illustrations. [listen]

Blake: Job's Evil Dreams

There are at least two occasions on which Vaughan Williams used voices more as instruments, for their colour rather than for their ability to express words. The first of these is one of his most unusual pieces (and one of my favourite works, having learned the viola part in a past life, and also conducted it), Flos Campi, a suite for solo viola, chamber orchestra and wordless chorus, which was first performed in 1925. [listen]

The other famous example of Vaughan Williams using a wordless chorus was in his seventh symphony, the Sinfonia Antartica [sic] completed in 1952. His third symphony (A Pastoral Symphony), premiered in 1922, uses a wordless solo soprano offstage, and earlier still he used both choral and solo voices more conventionally throughout his first symphony, A Sea Symphony, which was premiered in 1910.

The Sea Symphony sets texts by Walt Whitman, a poet whose work clearly resonated with Vaughan Williams as he set Whitman poetry many times during his life. A beautiful example dates from the same period as the first symphony, a choral work called Toward the Unknown Region.

Walt Whitman (1887)

This work was described as a "Song" for chorus and orchestra by the composer, and it sets before us the visionary, yearning quality which many (myself included) find so appealing in Vaughan Williams's music. Toward the Unknown Region lasts for less than 15 minutes but it has a timeless quality about it which is intoxicating. At its conclusion it speaks of escaping all ties except those of time and space, bursting forth, floating and fulfilling our souls' desires. [listen]

In 1929, twenty years after completing Toward the Unknown Region, Vaughan Williams set the Anglican canticle known as the Benedicite to music. This effervescent hymn of praise is taken from the apocryphal additions to the Old Testament book of Daniel, but Vaughan Williams interpolates a poem by Jane Austen on the same subject into the text.

The Benedicite is a work for chorus and orchestra which, like Toward the Unknown Region, lasts less than a quarter of an hour and is rarely performed today. Choral organisations could well take it and other similar Vaughan Williams works into their repertoires. [listen]

One of Vaughan Williams's most important choral works is Dona nobis pacem, which he wrote in 1936. It is a plea for peace and tolerance setting Whitman, John Bright, and verses from the Bible. In addition to the choir and orchestra, this 35 minute cantata requires soprano and baritone soloists. Dona nobis pacem is an extremely moving work, delicate and powerful and ultimately unheeded, given the events which overtook Europe within three years of its premiere. [listen]

A work much better known today, but rarely performed in its original version, is the Serenade To Music, setting Shakespeare (from Act 5 of The Merchant of Venice). It was written in 1938 for a special concert at the Royal Albert Hall designed to mark Sir Henry Wood's fiftieth year as a professional conductor. Sixteen of Britain's most famous singers took part and their music was designed by Vaughan Williams especially for them, to the point that their initials appear in the score next to their music. The work can be performed by sixteen soloists or by choral forces, or by a combination of the two. For special occasions, the use of sixteen solo singers makes this piece utterly magical as Vaughan Williams weaves his seductive melodies through the vocal parts and the voices, and crowns it all with a solo violin.

This link will take you to the first recording of the work, made in 1938 with the original sixteen singers from the premiere.

Sir Henry Wood

Quite apart from the choral and solo vocal works with orchestral or instrumental accompaniment, Vaughan Williams wrote sublime music - both sacred and secular - for unaccompanied choir. The Mass in G minor of 1922 is perhaps the best known, a work which featured in the five-part series on the Mass I posted in this blog a little while ago. (It starts here.) But a much later work from 1951 perhaps shows even better the way in which Vaughan Williams had total mastery of the unaccompanied choral genre. Like the Serenade To Music, this work sets Shakespeare and it's simply called Three Shakespeare Songs.

The first of these sets a text from The Tempest, and both words and music paint an eerie picture of underwater bells tolling a mournful dirge for lost seafarers. Vaughan Williams wrote this when he was 79, in that great final decade of his life when he wrote some of his most visionary and captivating music. [listen]

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1954)

In addition to his researches into folksong, one of Vaughan Williams's most important contributions to English culture (apart from his compositions!) was his role as Editor of The English Hymnal between 1904 and 1906. Vaughan Williams held no conventional Christian beliefs himself; he professed atheism in his younger years which seems to have settled into a comfortable agnosticism in later life. He certainly saw no conflict in writing so much music that was not only spiritual but overtly Christian. In his own words: "There is no reason why an atheist could not write a good Mass".

The “human spirituality” of much of his music - even his secular music - is what attracts many people to Vaughan Williams's music, and he certainly knew how to use it when writing or arranging music for Christian worship. Among the hymn tunes Vaughan Williams wrote for The English Hymnal is the one now called "Down Ampney". The title refers to the Cotswold village in which Vaughan Williams was born and the melody is now one of the best-loved in the Anglican tradition. It's usually sung to the words, "Come down, oh love divine"; in this recording the arrangement of verses 2, 3 and 4 is by Michael Leighton Jones. [listen]

All Saints' Church, Down Amney, Gloucestershire

Ralph Vaughan Williams's vocal music is an enormous treasure house for performers and listeners alike. As promised, I'll end this all too brief survey with an extract from his magnificent opera, The Pilgrim's Progress. This project occupied Vaughan Williams on and off for some 45 years, and is based on the famous John Bunyan allegory published in 1678. It contains music which spans the emotional spectrum, from despair to joy, from hell to heaven; this is the heavenly music that accompanies Pilgrim's entrance into heaven at the end of the fourth act, and the Epilogue in which Bunyan offers his work to the audience. [listen]

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in April, 2011.

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