We asked nine musicians, writers and film-makers who have found themselves involved in the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams to tell us about their all-time favourite VW work…
Richard Hickox, conductor – The Pilgrim’s Progress
The Pilgrim’s Progress is a huge challenge for any conductor, with 42 solo roles, chorus, orchestra and lots of offstage effects. I was asked to do it for Covent Garden in 1997, because it had been premiered there in 1951 – the premiere was a failure as far as the production was concerned, but everyone knew it was marvellous music. It’s not an exciting work to rehearse for the orchestra, but once the voices come and you put the work together, it has an extraordinary quality. Vaughan Williams may have benn agnostic, but his works have a spiritual radiance, and none more so than this. He took 40 years to write it and put his absolute heart into it. For me, it has the essence of VW – the spiritual quality, drama, the dissonance, the anger. He’s not the quintessential pastoral composer that people think he was. He was an angry, passionate and explosive composer.
Tony palmer, director of the Vaughan Williams film ‘O Thou Transcendent’ – A Sea Symphony
A Sea Symphony is VW – it’s a self-portrait and it’s muscular, visionary, brilliantly orchestrated, hugely enigmatic, magisterial and sweeping. It pulls together three main strands of English music that he aspired to: the great Tudor composers, the folk tradition – particularly the tune ‘Captain’s Apprentice’ which you hear over and over again in the Sea Symphony – and of course the English Hymnal. All these elements come into life in the Sea Symphony on a vast scale. You literally have the wind taken out of your sails. And how anybody reacted to those first brass chords at the beginning – they must have been knocked flat when it was first done in Leeds. VW is in all his magisterial glory in this work: a highly intellectual, highly disciplined, tall man flexing his muscles.
Tasmin Little, violinist – The Lark Ascending
I really have to go for The Lark Ascending, not just because of the work itself but because I have so many memories of times that I’ve played it, not least at the Last Night of the Proms in 1995 and when I recorded it in the presence of Ursula Vaughan Williams. It’s a piece that clearly speaks very directly to a lot of people – I wonder if there’s an analogy that people find in the concept of this vulnerable little bird making its way through the skies of life through different situations and then hopefully finding its way higher and higher to heaven. First of all you get this bird on its own with its beautiful song but then, while Vaughan Williams does use gentle harmonies, the work is built and orchestrated to quite a grand scale. This juxtaposition of the idea of this lone bird and then the power of the orchestra, I find very moving in itself. It’s quite a spiritual thing, though, and difficult to put into words.
Andrew Davis, conductor – Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis
I’ve got so many favourites. I’m very fond of Hodie as it reminds me of the time I met Vaughan Williams – as a treble at Watford Grammar School, I went up to Maida Vale, where he was sat in the balcony, looking very baggy and with his hearing aid in. But the real favourite is Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. This is partly because, based on the Tallis hymn that VW rescued from oblivion, it has a connection to the English church music that has been very much part of my life. But it is also a very mystical piece that summons up so many things for me – the West Country that I love, and that melancholic Englishness that’s so wonderful.’
Brian Kay, director of Leith Hill Musical Festival – Serenade to Music
As it is my privilege to be the conductor the Leith Hill Musical Festival – standing where the founder-conductor Ralph Vaughan Williams stood for over 50 years and indeed, conducting each year from his own antique music stand – there are many great works from which I could choose a favourite: the monumental Sea Symphony, the Five Mystical Songs, which are such a joy to sing and to conduct, or even the simple lyricism of the song Linden Lea. But in the end, it would have to be the Serenade to Music. It’s no surprise that Rachmaninov was deeply moved when he attended the first performance: it is surely one of the most romantic works ever written. The opening orchestral introduction alone is enough to send me into paroxysms of delight and the two occasions when the soprano (originally Isobel Baillie) soars to the top A at the words ‘sweet harmony’ are moments of pure magic.
Vernon Handley, conductor – Job
One work that has never been fully appreciated and continues to be neglected by concert promoters is the Partita for Double String Orchestra – unlike the popular Tallis Fantasia, it’s the work of a still-enquiring mind. However, for me it’s Job that follows almost the whole of Vaughan Williams’s temperament and output. It’s brilliantly orchestrated, it has a marvellous harmonic scheme and it makes the dramatic point that, no matter what the enemy becomes, Job goes on – Vaughan Williams himself never did bow down to whatever happened in life. One thing VW hated was talking about his work, and he wanted everything to be felt musically and qualified musically and not necessarily turned into theatre. But what I love about Job is that it is pure theatre, but the music overrides that, so it’s never sentimental and never melodramatic.
John Bridcut, maker of BBC Four series ‘The Passions of Vaughan Williams’ – Three Shakespeare Songs
I’ve only discovered the Three Shakespeare Songs recently. People praise his wonderful orchestral music but the way he writes for the voice, particularly in choral works, can be a bit formulaic. But these songs are extraordinary. They’re beautiful but untypical of VW – he never stopped turning his hand to new forms, new ideas that, for an 80 year old, is incredible. Because they’re miniatures, where so often Vaughan Williams is very large-scale, they’re also quite refreshing. He was asked by Armstrong Gibbs to write some test pieces for the British Federation of Music Festivals for a performance at the Festival Hall in 1951. Initially, VW sent a rather rude note back saying it would be better to use an established test piece. Some months later Gibbs was ill in bed and they were pondering what to do when a fat envelope arrived with the manuscript for the Three Shakespeare Songs, saying ‘Dear Armstrong, here are three Shakespeare settings; do what you like with them’.
Anthony Payne, composer – Symphonies Nos 3 & 6
Vaughan Williams’s symphonies inhabit totally different sound worlds and yet you can tell they are all by him. I’d hate to just choose one but If pressed, I’d choose Nos 3 and 6. No. 3 has come under a lot of abuse, people saying it’s cowpat music. In fact the irony is that it’s about war-ravaged landscapes. And it’s a deeply original work – a four-movement symphony with practically no fast music. When I was a student, it was said that VW wasn’t a great orchestrator. This is nonsense – his orchestration is perfectly attuned to what he had to say, and the Pastoral Symphony’s sound-world is quite different from his other symphonies – a strange luminosity with at the same time dark and inward quality. Symphony No. 6 is one of those ‘war-torn’ pieces which all of a sudden, towards the close of the first movement, reverts to the old style VW: there’s this great, singing tune which comes out in glorious full orchestra. Then all of a sudden it’s as if he realises that this is no longer possible: this romantic theme reaches a catastrophic climax and the whole thing ends in limbo. It’s wrong to say this is a ‘war symphony’. It’s about something much bigger, a spiritual desolation, and VW faced up to it. He was getting on and could see death in the middle distance. He’s not a man of conventional religion, so he had his own demons to face.’
Simon Heffer, journalist and author of ‘Vaughan Williams: a biography’ – Symphony No. 6
I first heard the Sixth Symphony’s first movement theme when I was about ten in a music lesson at school, and I thought it was wonderful. When I went up to University in the mid to late ’70s I suddenly got interested in VW and I started to explore his other symphonies. But I soon realised that the Sixth was head and shoulders above the other eight in terms of its originality, its quality and its ability to engage and move me. I have a fascination with the 1940s and to me it’s music redolent of that period – not just because of the jazz syncopation, with the saxophone solo in the Scherzo and the link with Ken ‘Snake Hips’ Johnson [Britain’s first black swing bandleader who was killed in a bomb on the Café de Paris]. I felt it reflected the war even though VW said it wasn’t a war symphony. And I thought it was a very understated, stiff-upper lip, very sad piece of music. It’s a last look back at a world that has only just survived the Great War and is not going to survive the Second: a vision of an England that’s disappearing forever. Many people think the key to the symphony is the 11 or 12-minute pianissimo at the end. But I think the key is the first movement with its fantastic E major theme at the end. Although it’s in a major key, there’s great sadness and a sense of loss in the music.’