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Ralph Vaughan Williams

Information on Select Songs and Song Cycles


Merciless Beauty

From his teacher Hubert Parry, Vaughan Williams learned to take his texts from the greatest writers in the English language. Here, the author was thought to have been Chaucer, though he wasn't. Whoever may turn out to be the real author aside, these three rondels are among the most exquisite love poems ever written. Vaughan Williams takes tenor and string trio and fashions a work described quite well by its title. Its beauty holds you and doesn't let you go. The work has recently been reissued on CD.

Recommended Recordings:
Ian Partridge, tenor; Music Group of London; EMI (LP) HQS1325
Philip Langridge, tenor; members of the Endellion String Quartet; EMI CDC764730-2

Songs of Travel

An early song cycle – Michael Kennedy calls it an "English Winterreise" – to texts by Robert Louis Stevenson. There are lingering traces of Vaughan Williams' fin-de-siecle 'Rossetti' style, but most of the songs take the first steps to the idiom he's known for. A few individual songs have found independent life in recital. I first heard John Shirley-Quirk do the complete cycle, but that recording is long gone. An orchestration exists, the composer responsible for dressing up three of the songs and his long-time assistant Roy Douglas coming up with the rest, but I prefer the piano accompaniment. The orchestrations blow away the intimacy of the cycle. A very good performance comes from Benjamin Luxon and David Willison with other cycles as well, including the wonderful 4 Poems by Fredegond Shove.

Recommended Recordings:
John Shirley-Quirk, baritone. Saga / Emergo Classics. SAGA EC3339-2
Benjamin Luxon, baritone; David Willison, piano. Chandos CHAN8475

Ten Blake Songs

A late work, written for a film on the English poet and painter William Blake and using only oboe and voice, this is Vaughan Williams' music stripped to its essentials. The songs show the intensity of melody, the harmonic adventurousness, and even his love of melody. You won't believe so much music comes from two performers.

Recommended Recordings:
Ian Partridge, tenor; Janet Craxton, oboe. EMI CDM769170-2

Three Shakespeare Songs

These were written in 1951 for an unaccompanied chorus. The songs are entitled: "Full Fathom Five", "The Cloud-capp'd Towers" and "Over Hill, Over Dale". The texts for the first two are taken from "The Tempest". "Full Fathom Five" evokes a seascape, whilst "The Cloud-capp'd Towers" is very similiar in mood to the 4th movement of the 6th Symphony which was written a few years earlier. "Over Hill, Over Dale" on the other hand is a rather jovial piece using text from "A Midsummer Night's Dream".

Recommended Recordings:
King's College Choir. Sir David Willcocks. Re-issued on Decca 430093-2

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