With 1904's orchestral In the Fen Country we seem to encounter the familiar voice of Ralph Vaughan Williams for the first time.
This is perhaps not quite right though. RVW made several revisions to the score over the decades, still revising it as late as the 1930s. So when we listen to recordings of In the Fen Country we are not hearing it as it was written in 1904 and it's probably fair to assume that the original version may not be quite the leap forward which it appears to be in the light of all those subsequent transformations. The gorgeous orchestration, for example, took thirty years to perfect. (It was well worth the time taken!)
Nonetheless, it still marks a significant step in the composer's progress - and a lovely piece It's strongly modal, largely sticking to the Aeolian scale throughout. The folkish tune with which its opens is its main theme. It's first heard on cor anglais - an instrument many early 20th century British composers felt a clear affinity for. It sets the scene, very well to my ears, of fens, mists, autumn melancholy, wide spaces and grey skies. This theme is then treated imitatively in a way that already looks back to the polyphony of the Tudors - in anticipation of the Tallis Fantasia. The piece soon begins swelling towards a majestic and beautiful climax. The climax itself is rendered original by its use of Tudor-style false relations. (Listen out from the notes that sounds wrong but aren't.) This gorgeous passage occurs at around a third of the way through the piece. We still have two-thirds of it to go though and nothing else reaches the exultant effect of that climax. The music seems to return to the misty fields and waterways before the metre (if not the mood) changes. The effect is poetic and rather understated - as, indeed, is the quiet ending with its valedictory viola solo.
I've been a lover of RVW's music for a long time now, but - by one of those strokes of fate - have never heard this piece before. I'm very taken with it.