Give underrated composer a listen

On anniversary of his death, a 30-CD set offers a wealth of Vaughan Williams' music

music essay

critical eye

August 24, 2008|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,

Looks, as everyone knows, can be deceiving. Consider Ralph Vaughan Williams - well-fed and rather rumpled in his favored thick, three-piece suits; hair usually a bit mussed. One wag thought that the eminent English composer suggested a farmer "on his way to judge the shorthorns at an agricultural fair."

He was actually an urbane fellow, fond of partying in the big city. And his private life had the complicated stuff that, in different times, would have galvanized the tabloids (invalid wife, decades-long affair with a much younger woman he eventually married when he was 81, etc.).

Sounds can be deceiving, too. Some people hear nothing but the equivalent of pretty postcards in the works of Vaughan Williams, just a lot of souped-up folk songs. Another English composer, Elisabeth Lutyens, went so far as to dismiss her colleague's efforts as "cowpat" music. Ouch.

Tuesday marks the 50th anniversary of Vaughan Williams' death, which provides as good an excuse as any to get reacquainted with the reality about his music, its extraordinary richness and breadth.

On these shores, only a small amount of that output is routinely performed, little beyond a few luscious, string-filled gems - Fantasia on 'Greensleeves,' The Lark Ascending and Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. There's a lot more where that came from.

Almost all of it can be found in a 30-CD, bargain box (about $60) recently released from EMI Classics, Vaughan Williams: The Collector's Edition. It's an ideal source for those who have yet to discover his work, or for anyone just interested in a refresher. No need to watch your step plowing through this huge field of marvelous music - not a cowpat to be had.

For an absorbing look into the composer's life and art, don't miss O Thou Transcendent, a documentary (available on DVD) by Tony Palmer that attempts, in his words, "to explode forever the image of a cuddly old Uncle" and reveal the complex Vaughan Williams underneath. Interviews, historic footage and lots of music animate the film.

In the new season, a few groups will acknowledge the Vaughan Williams anniversary, including the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, Handel Choir, Annapolis Chorale and Peabody Opera Theatre.

Too bad the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra didn't get in on this commemoration. How cool it would have been had the BSO decided to follow up on last season's survey of Beethoven's nine symphonies with the nine of Vaughan Williams - like Dvorak, Bruckner and Mahler, the British composer didn't get past that peculiarly ominous number. (The BSO has never performed four of the nine.)

In his arresting last symphony (the addition of three saxophones to the orchestral fabric is but one striking touch), Vaughan Williams seems to sum up a life fully, if not always happily, lived, and a personal outlook that combined pessimism and agnosticism with faith in the redemptive power of music. He died about a year after finishing the piece, at the age of 85.

Early on, Vaughan Williams was drawn to folk songs and the particular beauty of 16th- and 17th-century British music. Out of such inspirations, he fashioned his own sophisticated style, a style unmistakably and, as musical lexicographer Nicolas Slonimsky puts it, "gloriously" English - "nationalistic, but not isolationist."

As reconfirmed by the EMI box, which packs in almost every substantive thing he wrote, from string quartet to opera, Vaughan Williams created a considerable variety of expression, a wealth of imagery and import.

Just the mix of forces for, say, Flos campi is remarkable - viola, chorus and orchestra, all put to transfixing use. A set of songs with poems by William Blake magically uses just voice and oboe. Such novelties as the Tuba Concerto and Romance for harmonica, strings and piano contain much more substance than might be expected. (Sensitive recordings of all these pieces are in the EMI box.)

Whatever elements that his symphonies have in common, each speaks with a distinctive voice.

Several, especially No. 4 and No. 6, still surprise with their edginess or vehemence, while No. 5 never ceases to amaze with its breathtaking lyricism. The majestic sonic vistas of No. 2, A Sea Symphony, still trigger gooseflesh. (The EMI set includes the incisive cycle of the nine symphonies by Vernon Handley and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.)

In 1902, writing about his goals, Vaughan Williams advocated the creation of "real music" in his native country, music that "possesses real feeling and real life." For the rest of his life, that is precisely what he produced - and not just for England, of course.

The truth of his art enriches listeners everywhere.

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