Saturday, 9 March 2013

Vaughan Williams: Confident First Steps

Sometimes composers can be their own worst enemies. Ralph Vaughan Williams was prone to over-modesty and kept making comments about his early music being "clumsy" and lacking in technique. As the early works in question were never heard, critics understandably took him at his word and parroted these self-disparaging remarks. In recent years, however, we've had the chance to finally hear some of these early pieces and they've blown this self-created myth clean out of the water. RVW had bags of technique and was a far from clumsy young(ish) composer. 

As proof of this please try the String Quartet in C minor from 1898 - a work that only saw the light of day again in 2002. My goodness, what a peach of a work it is!

Yes, it may owe a good deal to the examples of Dvorak and Tchaikovsky but the examples are applied with considerable expertise and the result is a delightful listen. The Dvorak influence is clearest in the opening movement - RVW's 'American Quartet movement'! That same influence probably also accounts for the strange fact that the opening theme of the second movement Andantino may well strike many a Vaughan Williams fan as being somewhat characteristic of the mature composer, in its being modal and folk-like (and beautiful). We are in the world of co-incidences here, are we not? After all, RVW's discovery of folk song in 1902-1906 is his (longish) transformational moment. The third movement Intermezzo has a main theme that, if you concentrate on the pitches of the melody rather than its rhythm, is intriguingly like the tune of the composer's much-loved early song Linden Lea (about which much more shortly). It is also full of modal touches. Its trio is the most virtuoso part of the piece. The Quartet ends with a carefully-wrought theme and variations, of which the waltz-like variation is the most irresistible. 

Not bad, eh? 

From the same year comes the Quintet in D major for clarinet, horn, violin, cello and piano. This has much less of the future RVW in it, sounding to be strongly under the influence of Brahms. Brahms isn't a composer anyone thinks of when listening to mature Vaughan Williams, so this must be seen as an utterly uncharacteristic piece. Might it be the influence of that great Brahmsian Parry? Isn't it a joy though? 

As light as a serenade, it is unfailing attractive throughout and, as in the Quartet, brings forth, from a clear influence, music of considerable skill and charm. That side of Brahms is one some people miss. Evidently RVW was in sympathy with it though, as you'll hear above all in the delectable Intermezzo second movement. I challenge you to hear a single bar of clumsiness in the piece. You won't find any however hard you try. The warmth of the Andantino is something you won't fail to pick up on either. Were you to 'blind listen' someone to this movement I would be very surprised if they came up with the name of Vaughan Williams as its composer. It sounds so unlike him. The finale sparkles too. 

Did you like that as much as I did? Does it baffle you as much as it does me why Vaughan Williams was so dismissive of his early works?

Remarkably, RVW was also inclined to be over-modest about his first - and initially most enduring - popular success, the 1901 song Linden Lea.

I love alliteration and assonance like a lark loves the light of a bright sky, so I could hardly fail to feel affection for (minor poet) William Barnes's poem. (Yes, I know it's old-fashioned Victorian poetry, but what's wrong with that?) That, however, is as nothing compared to my love for RWV's music for Linden Lea. The song has been popping into my head several times a year every year, for donkey's years - each time a welcome visitor. The immortality of its melody certainly helps, and so does the perfection of its piano accompaniment. There's nothing showy or Brittenesque about the latter, given that RVW wasn't a piano man, but it works nonetheless. Linden Lea certainly owes some debts to Schumann but it sounds to me like no one other than Vaughan Williams. Why does this art song from before the composer's discovery of folk song sound so like a timeless folk song though?

Within the woodlands, flow'ry gladed,
By the oak trees' mossy moot,
The shining grass blades, timber-shaded,
Now do quiver underfoot;
And birds do whistle overhead,
And water's bubbling in its bed;
And there, for me, the apple tree
Do lean down low in Linden Lea.

When leaves, that lately were a-springing,
Now do fade within the copse,
And painted birds do hush their singing,
Up upon the timber tops;
And brown-leaved fruits a-turning red,
In cloudless sunshine overhead,
With fruit for me, the apple tree
Do lean down low in Linden Lea.

Let other folk make money faster
In the air of dark-roomed towns;
I don't dread a peevish master,
Though no man may heed my frowns.
I be free to go abroad,
Or take again my homeward road
To where, for me, the apple tree
Do lean down low in Linden Lea.

I hope my tendency to count things might come in handy here - and may be probably my only genuinely original contribution to musicology on the whole of this blog! The melody of the song, heard three times, contains 64 notes yet only 5 of those notes (all Cs and Fs) fall outside the compass of a folk-like pentatonic (i.e. five-note) scale. It's this (I believe) that gives Linden Lea its folksong-like character. Pentatonic-based tunes are, as Dvorak fans will know, a far from uncommon feature in folk music from many countries. Again, we may choose to ascribe the song's largely pentatonic melody to the influence of Dvorak. It doesn't sound anything like Dvorak though. It sounds English. (Does it sound English to non-English readers?)

And, to throw a spanner into the works, please take a listen to his very rarely heard Three Elizabethan Part-Songs, which appear to have been written prior to any of the pieces we've encountered so far. They set a poem by my favourite poet George Herbert ('So Sweet') and two poems by Shakespeare ('The Willow Song' from Othello and 'O Mistress Mine' from Twelfth Night).  The beautiful Herbert setting (the first part-song) in particular seems to show the composer hinting strongly at the interest in music of the Tudor age which was to manifest itself so famously in the Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis, but which also has harmonies and melodic turns that put me in mind of an even later work, the Five Variants on Dives and Lazarus. (I love that Herbert setting). 

Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright,
The bridall of the earth and skie:
The dew shall weep thy fall to night;
                                    For thou must die.

Sweet rose, whose hue angrie and brave
Bids the rash gazer wipe his eye:
Thy root is ever in its grave
                                    And thou must die.

Sweet spring, full of sweet dayes and roses,
A box where sweets compacted lie;
My musick shows ye have your closes, 
                                    And all must die.

Onely a sweet and vertuous soul,
Like season’d timber, never gives;
But though the whole world turn to coal,
                                    Then chiefly lives.

Talking of almost completely unknown but attractive early part-songs by RVW, how about the Christina Rossetti setting Rest from 1902? 

Christina's brother, Dante Gabriel, was the poet set in the other early RVW song that has won him many an admirer over the years - Silent Noon. This is lovely song.
Your hands lie open in the long fresh grass, --

The finger-points look through like rosy blooms:
Your eyes smile peace. The pasture gleams and glooms
'Neath billowing skies that scatter and amass.
All round our nest, far as the eye can pass,
Are golden kingcup-fields with silver edge
Where the cow-parsley skirts the hawthorn-hedge.
'Tis visible silence, still as the hour-glass.
Deep in the sun-searched growths the dragon-fly
Hangs like a blue thread loosened from the sky: --
So this wing'd hour is dropt to us from above.
Oh! clasp we to our hearts, for deathless dower,
This close-companioned inarticulate hour
When twofold silence was the song of love.
I detect a hint of Brahms again (especially when a slow triple-time lilt enters the music), and a fruitful one. In it we get a glimpse of the mystical side of the composer, so powerfully projected later in his output. 

From the same year as Silent Noon came another of the composer's finest early songs, Orpheus with his Lute. This may be a setting of Shakespeare, or of his associate John Fletcher. It appeared in Henry VIII. This delightful song is the nearest RVW came to writing in the manner of Reynaldo Hahn. (I'm sure by complete coincidence, though you can never quite be certain). There is a definite touch of Bach about this piece, though the melody is purely Romantic.

Your hands lie open in the long fresh grass, 
Orpheus with his lute made trees,
And the mountain-tops that freeze,
Bow themselves, when he did sing:

To his music, plants and flowers
Ever sprung; as sun and showers
There had made a lasting spring.

Everything that heard him play,
Even the billows of the sea,
Hung their heads, and then lay by.

In sweet music is such art:
Killing care and grief of heart
Fall asleep, or, hearing, die.

Vaughan Williams was beginning to awaken to the world of folk music, but before we meet his first ventures in trying to incorporate this influence into his work we have one final early chamber work to encounter - the Piano Quintet in C minor of 1903 - another piece no one could justifiably accuse of being the work of a clumsy composer.

It's scored for piano, violin, viola, cello and double bass - the same combination Schubert called for in his Trout Quintet. Again, however, it's Brahms who springs to mind most when listening to this piece; perhaps under the influence of Parry again. Just listen to the slow movement though and you can clearly hear the same composer who wrote Silent Noon and Orpheus with his Lute. You probably still wouldn't guess it was by Vaughan Williams though. As with the earlier chamber pieces, it doesn't have the familiar hallmarks of mature RVW. It still sounds fully mature however, taken purely on its own terms. The finale is a theme and five variations. The theme was one RVW was to return to later in life, even though he withdrew the Quintet. Even if we gave up sounding like Brahms soon after, that Brahmsian tendency to purge his output of works which he didn't want to be heard remained strong. Fortunately he didn't go as far as Brahms in destroying these fine early works.

Hope you enjoyed these early works. We're off to the Fen Country next.

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