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Ralph Vaughan Williams


Born: Oct 12, 1872; England   Died: Aug 26, 1958; England   Period: 20th Century
Ralph Vaughan Williams left a varied oeuvre that includes orchestral works, songs, operas, and various choral compositions. While primarily drawing on the rich tradition of English folksong and hymnody, Vaughan Williams produced well-loved works that fit into larger European traditions and gained worldwide popularity.
Vaughan Williams, who lost his father early in life, was cared for by his mother. Related, through his mother, to both
Read more Charles Darwin and the Wedgwoods of pottery fame, he grew up without financial worries. He studied history and music at Trinity College, Cambridge, and finished up at the Royal College of Music, where he worked with Parry, Wood, and Stanford. In 1897, the year he married Adeline Fisher, Vaughan Williams traveled to Berlin to study with Max Bruch, also seeking Maurice Ravel as a teacher several years later, despite the fact that the French composer was three years his junior. In 1903, he started collecting English folksongs; certain characteristics of English folk music, particularly its modal tonalities, in many ways informed his approach to composition. Vaughan Williams further developed his style while working as editor of the English Hymnal, which was completed in 1906. His work on the English Hymnal went beyond editing, for he contributed several new hymn tunes, most notably the Sine nomine, the tune for the hymn For All the Saints. The composer's interest in and knowledge of traditional English music is reflected in his song cycle On Wenlock Edge (1909), based on selections from A.E. Housman's immensely popular volume of poetry A Shropshire Lad. In his Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, composed in 1910, Vaughan Williams introduced antiphonal effects within the context of modal tonality, juxtaposing consonant, but unrelated, triads. Composed in 1914, his Symphony No. 2, "A London Symphony" brings to life, with great charm, the sounds of London from dawn to dusk. That year, Vaughan Williams also wrote his pastoral The Lark Ascending, for violin and orchestra. When World War I broke out, the 41-year-old composer enlisted as an orderly in the medical corps, becoming famous for organizing choral singing and other entertainment in the trenches. He was commissioned from the ranks, ending his war service as an artillery officer. The war interrupted the composer's work but did not, it seems, disrupt the inner continuity of his creative development. The Symphony No. 3 ("Pastoral"), composed in 1922, conjures up a familiar world, effectively incorporating folksong motives into sonorities created by sequential chords. While critics detected pessimistic moods and themes in the later symphonies, ascribing a shift to a darker vision to the composer's alleged general pessimism about the world, Vaughan Williams refused to attach any programmatic content to these works. However, the composer created a convincing musical description of a desolate world in his Symphony No. 7 "Sinfonia Antarctica" (1952), which was inspired by the request to write the music for the film Scott of the Antarctic. In addition to his symphonies, Vaughan Williams composed highly acclaimed religious music, as well as works inspired by English spiritual literature, culminating in his 1951 opera The Pilgrim's Progress, based on the spiritual classic by John Bunyan. An artist of extraordinary creative energy, Vaughan Williams continued composing with undiminished powers until his death at 87. Read less
Vaughan Williams: Job & Symphony No. 9 / Davis, Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra
Release Date: 02/17/2017   Label: Chandos  
Catalog: 5180   Number of Discs: 1
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Vaughan Williams: Hodie, Fantasia On Christmas Carols
Release Date: 08/05/2009   Label: Warner Classics  
Catalog: 69872   Number of Discs: 1
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Vaughan Williams: The First Nowell, Etc / Hickox, Et Al
Release Date: 10/03/2006   Label: Chandos  
Catalog: 10385   Number of Discs: 1
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Vaughan Williams: The Lark Ascending / Vittorio, Chamber Orchestra of New York
Release Date: 11/11/2016   Label: Naxos  
Catalog: 8573530   Number of Discs: 1
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Vaughan Williams: Sancta Civitas, Dona Nobis Pacem / David Hill
Release Date: 04/27/2010   Label: Naxos  
Catalog: 8572424   Number of Discs: 1
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Work: The lark ascending

About This Work
The Lark Ascending is a relatively simple piece -- its musical discourse is plainly and easily perceived; yet at its heart is an emotional profundity that links it with other works by Vaughan Williams from the same period, in which a calm, almost Read more detached pastoral approach is used to convey great feeling. Vaughan Williams completed The Lark Ascending in 1914 for violinist Marie Hall, with whom he consulted on the solo part. After a thorough revision in 1920, she first played it in a violin-piano arrangement in Shirehampton Public Hall in December 1920. The first performance of the orchestral version was in London, at a Queen's Hall concert in June, 1921, during the second Congress of British Music Society.

Verses from George Meredith's poem "The Lark Ascending" precede this evocative tone painting, describing the unique circling ascent of the lark, accompanied by its long-breathed, rhapsodic song. The writing for the violin mimics the "silver chain of sound...In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake" described by Meredith, though of course it also carries the main melodic argument. A brief cadence of soft chords from winds and strings discreetly usher in the first flight of the soloist, who rhapsodizes without accompaniment on a folk-like theme of considerable plasticity. The orchestra then quietly enters, and the first theme is developed organically until the section closes with a reprise of the solo cadenza.

A more straightforward folk theme on woodwinds begins the middle section, which has been likened to the pastoral countryside over which the lark soars; the violin's free descant over the orchestra certainly underscores that impression. A magical moment ensues when solo woodwinds evoke a panoply of birdsong under the busy rustling of the violin; the effect is like a choir of birds led by the virtuoso lark. Vaughan Williams would achieve a similar effect in Jane Scroop: Her Lament for Philip Sparrow from his 1935 choral suite Five Tudor Portraits. A note of sadness and nostalgia informs the reprise of the first section, and the piece ends with one more cadenza from the violin, whose song circles ever higher into the upper reaches of the instrument until it more disappears than ends; as quoted from Meredith, "Till lost on his aerial rings / In light, and then the fancy sings."

-- Mark Satola
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