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Program Notes for Oh, To Be In England!, April 6

This concert’s program notes have been compiled from the Journal of the RVW Society, the Guardian’s August 2014 “Symphony Guide” and program notes from the BBC Proms, August 2014.

 

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) was born into a well-to-do and socially progressive family. He started on the piano at five and his musical talents emerged quickly. When he was eight he took, and passed, a correspondence course in music through Edinburgh University. The schools he attended encouraged his musical gifts.

Perhaps unusually for someone growing up in the shadow of Brahms, Wagner and other titans of German romantic music, Vaughan Williams developed an early love for, and held firm to, English musical traditions. His idols were composers like Hubert Parry, one of his teachers at the Royal Conservatory of Music. As a further expression of his Englishness, he insisted on the traditional English pronunciation of his first name: “Rafe”. His genius as a composer led Vaughan Williams to study with (amongst others) Maurice Ravel, who took few pupils. Vaughan Williams said of Ravel that Ravel had helped him to escape from “the heavy contrapuntal Teutonic manner”. Ravel’s view of Vaughan Williams was more guarded; he called Vaughan Williams “my only pupil who does not write my music”.

After his death, an obituary in the Times observed: “Historically his achievement was to cut the bonds that from the time of Handel and Mendelssohn had bound England hand and foot to the Continent. He found in the Elizabethans and folk-song the elements of a native English language that need no longer be spoken with a German accent, and from it he formed his own idiom…There is now an English music which can make its distinctive contribution to the comity of nations”.

The Lark Ascending is a poem by English poet George Meredith about the song of the skylark. The poem inspired Vaughan Williams to write a piece by the same name for violin and piano. In 1920 he re-scored it for solo violin and orchestra. The music is now far better known than the poem which inspired it. The Lark Ascending was warmly received when first performed, and has remained popular ever since.

 

Benjamin Britten’s Symphonic Suite from Gloriana

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) was one of the most important and influential English composers of his time. His musical output was large, and many of his works have entered the standard repertoire. His best-known works are his opera Peter Grimes and his orchestral showpiece, The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. In 1976, shortly before his death, he was made a life member of the House of Lords, the first composer to be so honoured.

In 1952, Britten was commissioned to write an opera to commemorate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Britten entitled his opera Gloriana, a reference to Elizabeth I. The opera itself was widely panned. Perhaps his audience was expecting an opera that was patriotic and celebratory. What they heard was an opera which presented Elizabeth I as being driven largely by vanity and selfish desire. Nevertheless, the opera included some wonderful music, including some charming re-orchestrations by Britten of 17th century dances. In due course Britten took much of the music from Act III of the opera and rearranged it into the suite for symphony orchestra that we will hear tonight. “The Courtly Dances” remain an audience favourite. There is subtle humour to be found here, for example in the “Corento”. It begins with a genteel introduction by the lower strings – which the brass players promptly trample all over. Paul McCartney chose “The Courtly Dances” as one of his “Desert Island Discs”, the only classical music he chose when he participated in that iconic BBC program.

 

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 3 “Pastoral”

The paradox of Vaughan Williams’ “Pastoral” Symphony is that it is not pastoral in the slightest, not if you are expecting music evocative of a gentle, rolling English countryside with lambs out in the sun. The pastures in this symphony are not in England. They are in the killing fields of France during World War I.  The symphony reminds us of the death and suffering of war. It also reminds us that the war unfolded against a landscape that was often worthy of a painting by Corot, with beautiful, gentle colours, and birds overhead. It remains a controversial and misunderstood piece.

Despite his age – he was over 40 when the war began – Vaughan Williams enlisted at once and served in France throughout the war, first as an ambulance driver and later as an artillery officer. He lost many friends and witnessed death at very close quarters. This had a lasting emotional effect on him. The continual noise, especially when he served as an artillery officer, damaged his hearing and led to deafness later in his life.

After demobilization, Vaughan Williams returned to England. It took several years before he was ready to return to composing. His first major post-War work, which he wrote in 1922, was the symphony we hear tonight. As he later confided to friends, it was written in reaction to what he saw and felt during the war years. Its most obvious reference to war is a trumpet solo, evocative of the “Last Post”, which can be heard in the second movement. This solo is a reference to Vaughan Williams hearing a trumpeter practicing in the distance, and over and over again playing one wrong note. As one commentator noted, “it is useful to imagine Vaughan Williams standing on a hilltop at dusk, the horror of warfare temporarily suspended, with distant sounds drifting across a meadow—a woman’s voice singing a plaintive melody in the distance, a bugle call, the hint of an approaching storm, and the stillness that comes with nightfall”.

Some early critics, expecting (in light of the symphony’s title) a rustic idyll, misunderstood the work and panned it accordingly. Arguably Vaughan Williams was complicit in this misunderstanding of the symphony. He refused to comment publicly on what inspiration lay behind his music. His program notes for the first performance were short and uncommunicative. Only later and to close friends did he disclose what he had on his mind when composing the work. One scholar comments that it was not until after the Second World War that “the spectral ‘Last Post’ in the second movement and the girl’s lamenting voice in the finale” were widely noticed and at last understood.

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