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: Piano Concerto, Serenade to Music & Flos Campi / Oundjian, Toronto Symphony
Release Date: 06/01/2018   Label: Chandos  
Catalog: 5201   Number of Discs: 1
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Vaughan Williams: Willow-wood, Etc / Lloyd-jones, Et Al
Release Date: 11/15/2005   Label: Naxos  
Catalog: 8557798   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: 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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Work: A Sea Symphony


I. A Song for all Seas, all Ships: Moderato maestoso
II. On the Beach at Night, alone: Largo sostenuto
III. [Scherzo]: The Waves
IV. The Explorers: Grave e molto adagio
About This Work
The poetry of Walt Whitman was a rallying point for Vaughan Williams and his fellow students at Cambridge in the 1890's; for the composer, Whitman remained a lifelong source of inspiration. His largest Whitman setting is A Sea Symphony, which Vaughan Read more Williams began writing in 1903, when he was 31 years old, and which he completed, only after much revision in 1909. Whitman's decidedly non-ecclesiastical vision of the soul's journey through life as a sea voyage into uncharted regions certainly appealed to Vaughan Williams, a declared agnostic who once exclaimed "Who believes in God nowadays, I should like to know?" according to fellow Trinity scholar Betrand Russell. Drawing inspiration from the cantatas of Parry and the operettas of Sullivan, as well as the English folk songs he had recently begun to collect, Vaughan Williams fashioned a huge score that contains some of the finest choral writing of its era. In the first movement, "A Song for All Seas, All Ships," a stern brass flourish is answered by full chorus, "Behold the sea itself." Thematic motives that will inform the rest of the work are immediately sounded: the words "and on its limitless, heaving breast, the ships" are set to a noble, arching theme that appeared more than once in Vaughan Williams' music, from the early unpublished tone-poem The Solent to the Symphony No. 9 of 1958. A quicker, shanty-like section ensues, making use of the folk song "Tarry Trowsers," in which the baritone soloist sings "a rude, brief recitative of ships sailing the seas." The dramatic entry of the soprano is heralded by the opening brass flourish; her cavatina extends the imagery into the spiritual: "...for the soul of man one flag above all the rest...emblem of man elate above death [.]" The second movement is a nocturne, "On the Beach at Night, Alone," for baritone and chorus, in which, to a dark, rocking accompaniment the soloist muses on "the clef of the universes" and, over a soft march-like tread in the bass (the legacy of Parry), envisions how "A vast similitude interlocks all." The chorus unleashes a forthright and powerful declamation after which the initial mystery of the opening returns, this time with orchestra alone. A sprightly version of the opening fanfare, with pizzicato strings, launches the scherzo "The Waves" for chorus alone. The quick and lightly scored counterpoint in the orchestral accompaniment underscores the interplay of "whistling winds...undulating waves...that whirling current" through which a ship plies its way. The trio is a broad, Parryesque melody to the words "Where the great vessel sailing and tacking displaced the surface." The movement concludes with alternating fanfares for both brass and chorus. "The Explorers" is fully half an hour in length, a finale containing some of Vaughan Williams' most noble music. Here the metaphor of the soul as a ship voyaging through the seas of life is most forthrightly expressed. A quiet introduction for hushed chorus ("O vast Rondure, swimming in space") is followed by a slow march describing the "restless" soul of man from its origins in Adam and Eve, climaxing in a vision of the poet, "the true son of God" who will guide mankind through his songs. The soprano and baritone soloists sing of the Soul "taking ship" to "launch out on trackless seas" in a duet of operatic fervor. A faster section ("Away O Soul!") launches the Soul's journey, with a final note of benediction ("O daring joy, but safe! are they not all the seas of God?") before the symphony sinks from sight in the lowest strings.

-- Mark Satola
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