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Ralph Vaughan Williams

Information on Select Orchestral Works

Concerto Grosso for String Orchestra

This piece was written for a performance by the Rural Music Schools Association which took place in 1950 under the direction of Sir Adrian Boult, (and featuring a massed string orchestra of 400 players). This is why the strings are split into 3 sections: concertino – the skilled players, tutti – the intermediates, and ad lib – the beginners.
People often mistake Vaughan Williams as a "folk-y" composer, as if he wrote nothing more in his life than variations on "O Waly, Waly." His music ranges far wider than that, into very sophisticated realms. He originally wrote this string piece for all levels of string players: professionals, intermediates, and beginners who could play only open strings – even so, it's no pushover. The rhythmic problems alone will raise a player's hair. For some reason, it hasn't been performed or recorded much, and yet it's fully the equal of a work like Elgar's Introduction and Allegro or Stravinsky's Concerto in D. While not as intense as the Tallis Fantasia, it nevertheless has its passionate moments. Adrian Boult, usually so reliable in Vaughan Williams, misses the boat and turns in a lackluster performance. Norman Del Mar does considerably better.

Recommended Recordings:
Bournemouth Sinfonietta; Norman Del Mar. EMI CDC747812-2
London Philharmonic Orchestra; Adrian Boult. Angel (LP) S-37211

Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis

Vaughan Williams' first indisputable masterpiece and one of the great works for string orchestra written by anybody. Long before Stravinsky's neoclassic essays, Vaughan Williams looks back across centuries and shakes hands with the great Tudor composer Thomas Tallis. Further, Vaughan Williams does not merely exercise himself with recreating a surface style. Instead, the effect seems to transcend time, as a modern composer builds a modern work out of older materials and procedures. The string writing is at once audacious and assured, written with the ascoutics of Gloucester Cathedral in mind, which was where it was first performed. In fact, three independent ensembles make up the orchestra: a large group, a smaller 9-player ensemble, and a string quartet. This allows Vaughan Williams to play with both intimate and incredibly rich (and clear) textures. In fact, it's built somewhat like a great sermon: starting quietly and climbing to heaven by degrees, taking the listener along.
Other orchestral works of this period seem to borrow the Fantasia's string sound, in particular the Wasps Suite, the 5 Mystical Songs, and the 2nd Symphony. The composer's string writing became leaner as he got older – for his idiom changed and broadened as well. Still, I regret a bit that he never returned to these gorgeous sounds. Many have recorded this work; I find Boult's performance disappointing and Marriner's very thin.
For more information, see the Listener's Guide for a detailed analysis of this work.

Recommended Recordings:
Sinfonia of London, John Barbirolli. EMI CDC747537-2
Philharmonia Orchestra, Malcolm Sargent. EMI (LP) SP8676
New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein. MYK38484

Fantasia on Greensleeves

This very popular piece comes from an entr'acte and bits from RVW's marvellous opera "Sir John in Love". Despite its title, it's no fantasia, but a pretty straightforward setting of the tune Greensleeves, surrounding a vigorous section on the folk song "Lovely Joan." It's the middle section where Vaughan Williams did most of his work (the song appears very briefly in the opera), and one cannot give him a higher compliment than it enhances the beauty of the title tune. There are many recordings of this piece, and you can scarcely go wrong with any of them, but the Barbirolli CD is highly recommended.

Recommended Recordings:
Sinfonia of London; John Barbirolli. EMI CDC747537-2

5 Variants of Dives and Lazarus

This work is scored for string orchestra and harp, (preferably two), using as its basis a folk tune that Vaughan Williams had discovered over 30 years earlier. The folk tune can be heard in several parts of the British Isles, although it is known by different names; for example, in Ulster it is the basis of the folksong "The Star of the County Down". Although as Vaughan Williams states on the score: "These variants are not replicas of traditional tunes, but rather reminiscences of various versions in my own collection and those of others".
Constant Lambert, the British music critic and composer, once remarked that the only thing you could do to vary a folk song was to play it louder. Vaughan Williams, among others, proved him wrong. Delius, for example, used a simple variation technique. Vaughan Williams, more than any other British composer of his time, absorbed folk songs into his artistic psyche to such an extent, he not only wrote his own folk songs, but he was able to join them to large symphonic structures. Nowhere is this clearer than in the 5 Variants. This work is not theme and variations in the conventional sense. The folk song "Dives and Lazarus" is taken for a winding walk, pulled, and turned until it becomes an eleven-minute symphonic movement, without a trace of artistic self-consciousness.

Recommended Recordings:
The Jacques Orchestra; David Willcocks conducting. EMI CDC749023-2

In the Fen Country

As the title suggests, this is a tone poem. It is also an early work, written in 1904, and like so many of RVW's works of the period it was not published. At this point in his musical career Vaughan Williams was still developing as a composer and the piece waited 5 years after it was completed for its first performance. Despite being reorchestrated in 1935, this work was not published in the composer's lifetime and has only recently been resurrected.
It is one of the composer's first examples of great orchestral writing. Also significant is the fact that Vaughan Williams had just begun to collect folksong from the south of England, and although no folk melody is quoted directly, the inspiration of the countryside is clear – the tranquil sound of the midsection anticipating "The Lark Ascending", written 10 years later.

Recommended Recordings:
Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, Neville Marriner. Philips 442427-2
London Philharmonic Orchestra, Bryden Thomson. CHAN8502

Norfolk Rhapsody #1 in E minor

When folksong meets classical music, it's usually as a rhapsody. You can thank Liszt for starting that. Vaughan Williams gathered together a number of Norfolk folksongs and by all accounts had planned to write a symphony with them, but in the end he settled for constructing 3 "rhapsodies". The first in E minor was performed at the 1906 Proms, and the other 2 at Cardiff a year later. Intriguingly though, the composer withdrew all 3 works soon after. The first rhapsody was eventually revised and published in 1925, with a tender ending replacing the original lively finish. Unfortunately, the second and third rhapsodies were never published … until 2002, when the 2nd Rhapsody was recreated from the remaining fragments and recorded for the first time by Chandos.
If the missing two are half as good as the surviving rhapsody, it's a major loss. This is a great work, using themes from the Norfolk fishing village folksongs "The Captain's Apprentice" and "The Bold Young Sailor". You'll remember two things about this work, the lovely quiet passages with woodwind piping, and the jig-like cameo appearance of the snare drum halfway through. Vaughan Williams did the nation a service by preserving this music.

Recommended Recordings:
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Norman Del Mar. EMI CDM565131 2
Philharmonia Orchestra, Leonard Slatkin. RCA 09026-61193/96-2

Partita for Double String Orchestra

Dissatisfied with its original form as a double string trio, Vaughan Williams recast it for string orchestra. It's another odd work, a very sophisticated study in rhythm, with movements honoring the British society band leader Henry Hall and, to my ears, Gustav Holst's Beni Mora. The best performance I've heard was Adrian Boult's for Everest (coupled with the Symphony #8). His second outing, for EMI, lacks the necessary rhythmic bite. Try Vernon Handley on EMI or Bryden Thomson on Chandos.

Recommended Recordings:
London Philharmonic Orchestra; Adrian Boult. EMI CDM769710-2
Royal Liverpool Symphony Orchestra; Vernon Handley. EMI (Classics for Pleasure) CDM641142
London Symphony Orchestra; Bryden Thomson, cond. Chandos CHAN8828

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