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Honoring Vaughan Williams

February 5, 2008

For the 11th Basically British program Friday evening in Old First Church, the series’ founder, John Parr, chose to honor the memory of Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). Parr is head of the San Francisco Opera’s music staff, so he invited the young tenor Thomas Glenn, recently of the company’s Adler Fellowship program, to sing. He gathered five string players from the SFO orchestra, some of them veterans of the series, served as pianist himself, and presented a fascinating evening of the great composer’s vocal and instrumental works.
The program was largely built of neglected works. The concert began with Six Studies in English Folksong (1927), for cello and piano, then four of the nine Along the Field songs (1927, revised and published in 1954) for tenor and solo violin. Then came the cycle The House of Life (1903), for tenor and piano. The second half included the third movement of Vaughan Williams’ rarely played, early Piano Quintet in C Minor (1903), Fantasia (quasi variazioni), and to round off, the great song cycle On Wenlock Edge (1909), for tenor, string quartet, and piano.

The string players were violinists Joseph Edelberg and Adrienne Herbert, violist Elizabeth Prior Runnicles, cellist Thalia Moore, and bassist Michael Taddei. Taddei was needed for the Piano Quintet, which is scored for the odd combination of piano and string quartet, but with a double-bass replacing the expected cello.
The Other Side of Pastoral
Vaughan Williams has too often been branded as merely a folksy, fuddy-duddy conservative because (like many in his generation) he was interested in and collected the folk songs of his native land. Like Bartók, he got to the point where he could write authentic-sounding folk music of his own. We heard an example of that in the cello-and-piano Etudes that opened the program — five meditative pieces, and a dancelike finale. These are studies in British folk styles, not show-off pieces.

But there was more to the composer than that. He could also turn out bone-crushing works, such as the Sixth Symphony, filled with more violent dissonance than any of his British contemporaries. The Fourth Symphony is even fiercer, and his Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra more violent still.

Besides his studies at London’s Royal College of Music with Hubert Parry and Charles Villiers Stanford, in 1897 he went off to Berlin for work under Max Bruch. Bruch helped him understand architectural balance, knowledge that paid off in his large scores. Still feeling that he lacked something, Vaughan Williams hopped the Channel to Paris in 1908 for “a little polish” from Ravel.

Ravel gave him a feeling for musical impressionism’s harmonic and timbral colors, such as the expressive possibilities of parallel chords. Ravel’s influence turns up in the six songs of On Wenlock Edge, after poems by A.E. Housman. Every so often Vaughan Williams would write outright impressionistic compositions, such as Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and the Third Symphony (Pastoral).
From Promise to Mastery
Much of Friday’s program, however, featured early music, works written before Vaughan Williams had really found Vaughan Williams. Some of these he withdrew from publication: The Piano Quintet went unpublished until 2002. We heard only the Quintet’s finale, a set of brief, contrasting variations on a modal theme, set as a sort of free passacaglia. Enjoyable as it is, I understand why the composer withheld it.

Bruch’s and Ravel’s valuable influence can be gauged by comparing the academic blandness and Victorian balderdash in the six songs of The House of Life (set to unmusical poetry by Dante Gabriel Rossetti), to the later songs on the program. The cycle’s final little waltz, “Love’s Last Gift,” was passable, but that’s about all. Glenn sang these songs from memory and, in a vain attempt to give them some life, forced grit into his voice, a thing otherwise absent from his sterling vocalism.

By contrast, the selection of songs from 1927’s Along the Field (“Along the Field,” “We’ll to the Woods No More,” “Good-Bye,” and “With Rue My Heart Is Laden”) shimmered with invention and contrapuntal mastery. And what an idea it was to support the voice with only a solo violin, emphasizing the loneliness in Housman’s meditations.

The one familiar masterpiece of the evening was, of course, On Wenlock Edge, again to Housman’s poetry. The song cycle, with its darkly rich instrumentation, is as close as Vaughan Williams came to writing a Requiem. It culminates with the death-laden “Bredon Hill,” where funeral bells haunt the score, recalling the dead farmer’s song, “Is my team still ploughing?” It’s hard not to choke up during a performance.

That power was only emphasized by Glenn’s flawless elocution, beauty of voice, and musicality, qualities that point to a major career for the young tenor. Instrumental performances ranged from fine to outstanding.

You wonder how many local orchestras will take heed of the 50th anniversary of Vaughan Williams’ death. It would be a shame to miss the chance to reassess this composer, whose many overlooked qualities helped put English musical composition back on the map.

Heuwell Tircuit is a composer, performer, and writer who was chief writer for Gramophone Japan and for 21 years a music reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle. He wrote previously for Chicago American and the Asahi Evening News.