Skip to main content

Ralph Vaughan-Williams (1872 - 1958)


Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis

The Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis was written in 1910, and first performed at the Three Choirs Festival that year in Gloucester Cathedral, in a concert along with Elgar's Dream of Gerontius.

No-one knew quite what to expect - though 39 years old, Vaughan Williams was little known at that time - and many people found it strange and even a little disturbing. It is a work of marked contrasts; declamatory yet intimate, passionate yet austere, and a work in which, despite the radiance, shadows still lurk in the corners. It involves three distinct groupings - the full string orchestra, a small and distant string orchestra, and a solo quartet. A mysterious chordal introduction sets the scene for the entry of Tallis's tune on pizzicato cellos and basses; thereafter an A-B-A structure takes shape, the start of the B section being marked by the solo viola with a new segment of the Tallis theme.

Job - A Masque for Dancing

The Old Testament Book of Job is the only book in the Bible to seriously tackle the problem of pain and evil: How is it that, when God is good and God is omnipotent, there is so much pain and evil in the world? In the King James version the book is poetically inspired, but theologically baffling. It inspired English poet, mystic, painter and engraver William Blake to one of his finest works, a series of 22 engravings illustrating the Book of Job, made towards the end of his life. Blake's engravings in turn inspired Vaughan Williams to one of his finest scores, a ballet in nine scenes whose sets and choreography are closely modelled on Blake's engravings.

Each of them adapted the story somewhat to reflect their own beliefs. Blake concentrates on Job's self-righteousness as the cause of his troubles. He implies parallels with the English nation in his time, the dawn of the industrial revolution - in a state of spiritual sickness and under the domination of a materialist philosophy, whose people are oblivious to the spiritual nature of man. Vaughan Williams was also aware of the spiritual side of man, but expressed it in music instead of the word and the graphic arts. He was not an orthodox believer any more than Blake, but like Blake he was deeply aware of and concerned with man's spiritual side.

The idea for Job came in 1928 from Geoffrey Keynes, a famous surgeon, ballet lover, and the first great Blake scholar. The 22 engravings were adapted into nine scenes by Keynes and his sister-in-law the artist Gwendolen Raverat, who was Vaughan-Williams' cousin. The music was completed in 1930 and was first performed in a concert (non-staged) version at the Norwich Festival that year. The ballet was premiered in London in 1931 by a group called the Camargo Society, predecessor of the Sadlers Wells Ballet, now the Royal Ballet company. On this occasion a reduced orchestration was used to cope with the restricted space in the theatre pit.

Musically Job is the centrepiece of Vaughan-Williams' output. It draws together threads from his earlier works such as Lark Ascending and the Tallis Fantasia, and points the way to later and violent works such as the 4th and 6th symphonies. As in the Tallis Fantasia, there is much use of clashing major and minor thirds and a rising perfect fourth. But in Job this contrasts with the augmented fourth, the diabolus in musica of mediaeval composers, and here representing Satan himself. More than in any other of his works, Vaughan-Williams here moulds all these elements into a complex yet coherent musical structure which manages to follow the sequence of Blake's engravings with remarkable accuracy. For listeners accustomed to the 4-movement shape of a symphony, this can make Job seem a difficult work to follow at first hearing. The subtitle "A Masque for Dancing" conveys two important points. Firstly it is not a normal ballet, using mime in a series of relatively static tableaux, interspersed with dances both stately (e.g. Job's sons) and violent (Satan's dance). And secondly it emphasises the link with Blake and tradition by the use of old dance forms, such as Sarabande, Minuet, Galliard and Pavane.

Scene 1: In the gentle Introduction we meet Job and his family - his wife, his sons and his daughters. They sit under a tree on which hang musical instruments, mute and unused. In the alternating major / minor third tonality (this first gentle theme represents Job himself) we realise that all is not as peaceful as it should be. At the first loud entry Job blesses his children to an important descending scale. Briefly we hear Satan's short, jagged motive, and then in rising fourths Heaven opens to reveal God in majesty. But here too there are tensions in the curious wind chords which answer the rising strings. The Sarabande of the Sons of God is a rich dance; God admiringly points out Job to Satan, but Satan offers a challenge - destroy Job's prosperity and even Job will curse you! God accepts the challenge and, in a loud descending theme similar to Job's own blessing to his children, dares Satan to do his worst. The stately dance ends on a threatening unison note.

Scene 2: Satan's Dance of Triumph. A fast and wild dance, based on a whole tone scale and Satan's motive we heard in Scene 1. The tonality is unstable and the accompanying rhythms are relentless and disrupted. Near the end the brass blaze out a sarcastic Gloria in Excelsis Deo.

Scene 3: In an archaic minuet we see Job's sons and their wives dancing. The style is gentle and simple, but the tonality and harmony is unexpectedly wrong. This is not honest grace but vanity, full of voluptuous pride. Satan enters, and Job's blessing theme is blasted out, now become a harsh curse. The dancers are struck dead and the music ends bleakly.

Scene 4: Job's Dream. Unaware of the disaster to his sons, Job stirs in his calm sleep. The music swells and to the blessing/curse motive Satan appears and conjures up a terrifying sequence of visions - plague, pestilence, famine, battle, death. The music is jazzy but frequent augmented fourths make it harsh and aggressive.

Scene 5: Dance of the three Messengers. A solo oboe introduces lamenting woodwind, who tell Job of the death of his sons and their wives, and the loss of all his wealth. It turns into a funeral cortege, but Job still blesses God. (He cannot conceive that the evils are in any way due to his own faults.)

Scene 6: Dance of Job's Comforters. Satan's theme introduce Job's "comforters". Their dance is at first one of pretended sympathy, but develops into anger and reproach as they blame Job for his own disasters. An oily saxophone solo highlights their hypocrisy. To another version of the blessing/curse theme Job finally cracks and curses God. At this heaven gradually opens (as in scene 1) and reveals, to the entry of the full organ, Satan seated in triumph on God's throne. Job cowers in terror as the vision fades.

Scene 7: Elihu's Dance of Youth and Beauty. At last real comfort comes to Job in a violin solo reminiscent of the Lark Ascending. It is clear from the clean simplicity of the melody that Elihu comes from God, and in the solemn hymn-like Pavane of the Sons of Morning it seems that Heaven is offering Job a fresh start.

Scene 8: In his now familiar jagged theme Satan comes to God to claim his victory. But in the most powerful version of the blessing/curse theme God pronounces his curse on Satan and banishes him. To an energetic and rustic sounding dance in triple time the Sons of Morning drive Satan out from Heaven. When this stops abruptly we see Job and his friends preparing an Altar under the tree, as in scene 1. But now the instruments are not mute but being played. Gradually the Altar Dance incorporates the Pavane of the Sons of Morning from scene 7 and moving richly through different keys climaxes on three extraordinary bi-tonal chords and then, like scene 1, ends on a powerful unison note.

Scene 9: Epilogue. Job is an old man and his wealth is restored, but he is humbled. In music we have not heard since scene 1 we see him giving gifts and receiving gifts from love alone, and no longer self-righteous in his cold distribution of charity. Because for Blake self-righteousness is the only unforgivable sin, and "the letter [of the law] killeth, but the spirit giveth life".

Overture "The Wasps"

Born in 1872, Vaughan-Williams came from an affluent middle-class background - he was related to Josiah Wedgewood (of pottery fame) and to Charles Darwin. After studying at the Royal College of Music and Trinity College, Cambridge, he had further study with Max Bruch in Berlin, and went to Ravel for a few lessons. He also spent time researching Elizabethan music, and English folk music, which he absorbed and transformed into a new basis for 20th century English music.

He was what is known as a late developer, in that little of what he wrote before the age of 35 survives. The last four of his seven symphonies were written after the age of 70. Most composers don't know the meaning of the word "retirement"!

His incidental music for a production of Aristophanes' play The Wasps dates from 1909, the same year as his first symphony ("A Sea Symphony').

Symphony No.6 in E minor
I. Allegro
II. Moderato
III. Scherzo: Allegro Vivace
IV. Epilogue: Moderato

Vaughan Williams' Sixth symphony was premiered in 1948, shortly after the end of the Second World War, and is a brilliant but deeply disturbing work of musical art. The musician and scholar Deryck Cooke (who later completed Mahler's Tenth symphony) was at the first performance, and later wrote "The effect was nothing short of cataclysmic - the violence of the opening and the turmoil of the whole first movement; the sinister mutterings of the slow movement, with that almost unbearable passage in which trumpets and drums batter out an ominous rhythm louder and louder and will not leave off; the vociferous uproar of the scherzo and the grotesque triviality of the Trio; and most of all the slow finale, pianissimo throughout, devoid of all warmth and life, a hopeless wandering through a dead world ending literally in nothingness."

Mr. Cooke later wrote a brilliant analysis of the symphony in his book The Language Of Music*. He shows how the symphony is built on four basic terms of musical language - the minor third 1-3-1, the opposition of major thirds and minor thirds, the falling semitone and the conflict between keys separated by a semitone, and the augmented fourth with conflicts between keys separated by that interval. These are four of the most emotionally painful terms of musical language, which goes some way to explaining the impact of this symphony.

The challenge of understanding what this symphony "means" was compounded by the composer's own programme notes for the first performance, which are extraordinary - trivial, flippant and deliberately unhelpful.

All four movements are distinct, but play without a break. The opening allegro begins stormily in F-minor / E-minor, but eventually subsides. A second theme appears on trumpets in close harmony, with an accompaniment sounding like a grotesque Teddy Bears Picnic. A third tune on the strings is more lyrical, but still ambiguously explores the major third I minor third intervals. This theme eventually breaks through into a sunny E major towards the end of the movement, but the F-minor / E-minor tensions of the beginning return at the end.

The second movement is brooding and threatening. It is underpinned by the obsessive rhythm which Deryck Cooke refers to, which alternates with an ominously quiet string chorale passage. Eventually the rhythm drives the whole orchestra to a massive climax, but even this does not bring relief - it is quickly suppressed, and the dark clouds remain.

The scherzo is full of a furious energy, but being based on the intervals of the semitone and augmented fourth, it has great difficulty in achieving anything with this energy. A central section features a sleazy saxophone tune, but this too fails to reach a stable tonality.

Despite several attempts, the movement cannot work up to a proper climax - it just creates a lot of noise which eventually fizzles out.

The closing epilogue is the strangest part of this compulsively strange symphony. It is directed to be played as quietly as possible throughout, with constant reminders to the players not to get any louder, and the content is mere wisps of melody which drift about contrapuntally. The oboe attempts a proper melody, but it fails to achieve any sense of purpose. The movement ends with alternating E-flat I E-minor chords - the desolate E minor having the last word.

So what is this symphony really about? I am reminded of the words of Wilfred Owen in his collected poems, which (I'm sure it's no coincidence) also appeared just after a great World War, in 1920 - ".. all the poet can do today is warn."

*Deryck Cooke: The Language of Music, Oxford University Press, 1959. An attempt to explain how music conveys emotions and meaning. Should be required reading for all thinking musicians.

The Lark Ascending
The Lark Ascending is subtitled Romance for Violin and Orchestra, and is one of Vaughan-Williams' most popular works. It was written in 1914, the year of the outbreak of World War 1, but was not performed until after the war, in 1920. The score is prefaced by a quotation from a poem by George Meredith, a Victorian author and poet who was both long-lived and prolific, though now largely forgotten:

He rises and begins to round
He drops the silver chain of sound
Of many links without a break,
In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake.

For singing till his heaven fills,
Tis love of earth that he instils,
And ever winging up and up,
Our valley is his golden cup,
And he the wine which overflows
To lift us with him as he goes
Till lost on his aerial rings
In light, and then the fancy sings.

This piece is hauntingly prophetic. Written on the eve of a war which was to wipe out a whole generation in the mud and blood of the trenches, the lark sings in a landscape already devoid of people. Beginning and ending with the lark alone in a completely empty sky, even the folk melody of the central section seems a little unreal, as if the people exist only in our imagination. There is certainly much beauty here but, as so often in Vaughan Williams' best music, there is also something deeper.

Bass Tuba Concerto
I. Allegro moderato
II. Romanza
III. Finale - rondo alla tedesca

After the Second World War, Vaughan-Williams was something of a "Grand Old Man" of English music. English music was blossoming (e.g. the appearance of Britten's opera Peter Grimes in 1945) and Vaughan-Williams' reaction to this, irreverent as always, was to write some of his most experimental works. These include the eighth symphony, which includes every percussion instrument the composer knew, a Romance for mouth organ, and this concerto for bass tuba and orchestra. It was written when he was aged 81, and first performed on 13th June 1954 by Philip Catelinet and the LSO under John Barbirolli. Critical reaction was not to take it too seriously - "an elephantine romp, humorous and salty" as Michael Kennedy calls it - but the composer himself took the task seriously enough. He discovered agility and melodic potential in an instrument few others had suspected, and created a work of lasting value.

The first movement is almost a march, in brisk 2/4 time, mostly in the home key of F minor. Quite short, it features a solo cadenza towards the end. The D major romanza is really beautiful, with a main theme as fine any Vaughan-Williams slow movement. Sung first by the violas, the tuba takes it over and explores it lovingly. The finale is short, quick and more chromatic, slithering into and out of keys rapidly, before another short cadenza and closing flourish.

Back to programme notes index