Sunday, August 31, 2008

Ralph Vaughan Williams: English Composer, 1872-1958

Entry for 31 August 2008:

All this week, as we prepared to leave the US and upon our return to Scotland, I’ve been following programs marking the 50th anniversary of the English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams‘ death, on August 26, 1958.

To the best of my recollection, I first encountered the music of Vaughan Williams in 1969, between my first and second years at university. I think it was the Mass in G minor that did it, but it might have been the 6th Symphony. It’s hard for me to say exactly what it is about his music that appeals to me so deeply. Certainly, his use of folk melodies and rhythms connected with my love of folk music and folk rock. However, I think it was also his rediscovery of 16th and 17th century harmonies, which he then subtly transformed with 20th century dissonances, creating a hybrid modern-traditional sensibility. This simulaneous grounding in history and tradition, while at the same time moving forward into the future, toward what it new, speaks to something in me that thirsts simultaneously for the old and the new. Then there is his mastery of orchestration and tone color, similar to Debussy and Ravel (with whom he studied) that sweeps me up in the play of instruments and textures. Or perhaps part of it was the fact that the church hymnal from which I’d been singing since childhood was full of music written or arranged by him.

Whatever the reasons, the result was that Vaughan Williams‘ music became a kind of sound track for my life, as I was at first bowled over by vocal/religious works like the Mass and Flos Campi, then traversed the 9 symphonies, discovered the shorter, rhapsodic symphonic works like the Lark Ascending and the Tallis Phantasia, and encountered Blakean intensity of Job: A Masque for Dancing. Later, at a slower pace, I explored more obscure pieces, like the film and chamber music and the operas. I used to regularly search record stores for recordings of his music, often a frustrating exercise.

When a friend gave me a teddy bear, it reminded me of a picture of of V-W on the cover of one of his albums (I think it was the 8th symphony), so I named it „Rafe“ (i.e., „Ralph“ in its British pronounciation).

But it was the Mass in G minor that single-handedly brought me back to the Episcopal/ Anglican church, after several years of spiritual searching. The fact the Vaughan Williams described himself as a „Christian agnostic“ only endeared him to me more, as it captured for me the tension between doubt and belief, or head and heart, that is central to my spiritual position.

My dad was also very fond of V-W, and used to use The Lark Ascending for guided meditations (excellent for shamanic journeys to the Upper World). When my dad died two years ago, I insisted that they play „For All the Saints“ at his funeral (along with „When the Saints Go Marching In“, of course).

And I’ve written many manuscripts while listening to Vaughan Williams‘ symphonies, sometimes playing through all nine, one after another.

So I’ve had a good wallow in Vaughan Williams‘ music this week, beginning with Bruce McGlauchlin’s Exploring Music on American Public Radio earlier in the week, and then continuing with Donald Mcleod’s Composer of the Week featuring V-W’s obscure operas. The high point was a televised concert on BBC 2 of Colin Davis conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra in an all-V-W concert featuring the Tallis Phantasia, Serenade to Music and the 9th Symphony, a powerful evening of music that brought tears to my eyes over and over. When it was done, I was left reflecting about the 9th Symphony, one of Vaughan Williams‘ last pieces: Here, he is facing death, grounded and affirming all he has been and done, still searching for new ways of expressing himself honestly and directly, still curious and open to the mysteries of life. Not a bad example to follow I think.

1 comment:

ann said...

Hello Robert,
Nice thoughts on V W. Yes, The Lark Ascending was your dad's favorite piece to use for guided meditations and for re-experiencing one's "peak moments." mom