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: Mass in G Minor / Nethsingha, St. John's College Choir
Release Date: 05/18/2018   Label: Signum Classics  
Catalog: 541   Number of Discs: 1
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Vaughan Williams: Piano Concerto / Wass, Judd, Royal Liverpool PO
Release Date: 11/17/2009   Label: Naxos  
Catalog: 8572304   Number of Discs: 1
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Vaughan-williams: Symphony No 2, The Wasps Overture / Bakels
Release Date: 06/28/1994   Label: Naxos  
Catalog: 8550734   Number of Discs: 1
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Vaughan Williams: Symphonies 3 & 6 / Kees Bakels, Bournemouth SO
Release Date: 10/04/1994   Label: Naxos  
Catalog: 8550733   Number of Discs: 1
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Vaughan Williams: Job, The Lark Ascending / Lloyd-jones
Release Date: 06/10/1997   Label: Naxos  
Catalog: 8553955   Number of Discs: 1
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Work: Symphony no 5 in D major


Symphony No. 5 in D: I. Preludio (Moderato - Allegro - Tempo I)
Symphony No. 5 in D: II. Scherzo (Presto misterioso)
Symphony No. 5 in D: III. Romanza (Lento)
Symphony No. 5 in D: IV. Passacaglia (Moderato - Allegro - Tempo primo - Tempo del Preludio)
About This Work
During the late 1930s and early 1940s, Vaughan Williams was occupied with a wide variety of musical projects. His earliest film scores date from this time, such as those for The 49th Parallel (1940) and Coastal Command (1942). He also contributed to Read more the war effort with works like the Five Wartime Hymns (1942) and the pageant England's Pleasant Land (1938); the latter work incorporates early sketches for the Symphony No. 5. There was also the ongoing labor on the opera/morality play The Pilgrim's Progress. Some incidental commissions also came his way, like the Serenade to Music written for Sir Henry Wood's golden jubilee as a conductor (1938).

And there was the Symphony No. 5, largely written over the years 1938 to 1943. Vaughan Williams himself conducted the London Philharmonic in the work's first performance at a Royal Albert Hall Promenade concert on June 24, 1943. A decade separates this symphony and its predecessor, and a work more unlike the violent and tumultuous Symphony No. 4 would be hard to imagine. Vaughan Williams scholar Michael Kennedy has called the Fifth the "symphony of the celestial city," which perhaps gives some indication of the work's radiance and lyricism.

The Symphony No. 5 was dedicated to Jean Sibelius, and the latter's own Symphony No. 5 is evoked in the serene and mysterious opening Preludio. French horns sound out in D major over a low C in the strings, an ambiguity that is partly resolved when a radiant E major emerges in the strings. There are some darker moments during the more animated development section, but the opening horn calls return, and the main melody is heroically sounded out with brass and tympani. The epilogue is more ambivalent, wandering sadly toward a haunting and uncertain ending. The second movement, Scherzo, is a sardonic little dance that emerges out of swirling strings. Blasts from the brass section occasionally interrupt the tune. As turbulent as the music gets, the scoring is light and nimble throughout. The music relaxes toward the end of the movement, perhaps in anticipation of what is to follow.

The Symphony No. 5 derives some of its thematic content from the opera The Pilgrim's Progress, but only in the third movement "Romanza" is the connection between opera and symphony dramatically apparent. In the manuscript score, Vaughan Williams included a brief quotation from Bunyan's work: "Upon this place stood a cross, and a little below a sepulchre. Then he said: 'He hath given me rest by his sorrow, and life by his death.'" The movement begins mysteriously, as a stately chorale-like theme is presented. Woodwinds, particularly English horn and oboe, introduce a new theme (taken from Act One, Scene Two of the opera). The music becomes temporarily blustery, but the chorale theme returns and builds to a noble climax. A solo violin leads into the hushed and poignant coda. Like the Brahms Symphony No. 4, the Vaughan Williams Fifth ends with a Passacaglia; the stately theme is heard in the low strings at first, and is developed by the rest of the orchestra. Variations on the passacaglia theme range from the playful to the jubilant to the restive. A big, brass-laden climax leads to a return of the symphony's opening French horn call, this time in a more assertive guise. The strings reflect on motifs from the first movement, with the passacaglia theme lurking nearby, and fade into a very peaceful and beautiful ending to what some have called Vaughan Williams' greatest symphony.

-- Chris Morrison
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