Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Ralph Vaughan Williams: A Personal Recollection

Today marks the 50th Anniversary of the death of the English composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams.

It seems to be a year for anniversaries with comprehensive festivals, celebratory performances and recordings: most notably the 100th Birthday of Elliott Carter (still composing), the centennial anniversary of the birth of Olivier Messiaen - and even though no one needs to mount a festival of the most performed opera composer in the repertoire to celebrate it, the 150th Anniversary of Giacomo Puccini’s birth. And those are just the ones born in December!

“Death Anniversaries” may not have the same kind of celebration about them, obviously, but on the basis that “any anniversary is a chance to honor an artist,” these will often have to suffice until a more pleasant occasion comes along, usually beyond the lifetime of those people choosing to do the honoring.

In 1972, the centennial of the birth of Ralph Vaughan Williams, I was able to get some British stamps marking that event and even affixed it to an envelope complete with the requisite American postage so I could send my mother, a stamp collector specializing in musical stamps, her own cancelled stamp. It’s around here somewhere – I saw it last year, going through various papers in the desk – but since I never replaced the scanner the cats have disabled in their quest to install wireless technology in the house, we’ll have to let it pass for this post...

(Insert usual admonishments, here: he pronounced his first name “Rafe” and so most people pedantically correct those who pronounce it as it looks; his last name is a double-barreled but unhyphenated Vaughan Williams, not Williams, Ralph Vaughan; and Vaughan is not spelled “Vaughn.” Okay, that’s done...)

When I was in high school, various baritones in the choir had to sing “Linden Lea” by Vaughan Williams which I thought was a folk-song arrangement but actually turned out to be an original tune. It’s probably his most famous song but for some reason I hated it. Well, “hate” is a pretty strong word but I found it boring and disliked it, dismissing it without any more reason than a child might refuse to eat the green beans (which, come to think of it...). Still don’t care for it (or green beans).

Consequently, I didn’t think much of Vaughan Williams, based on my dislike for this one small piece of music. The fact he was best known as a composer of symphonies didn’t seem to matter much to me.

Browsing through the LP bins over at a local department store that had the best selection (and prices) of classical music in the area, I remember finding Vaughan Williams’ Fifth Symphony, recorded by John Barbirolli on the Angel label. The first thing that struck me was the cover art – a painting by J.M.W. Turner, a painter I didn’t know at the time (and amazed to find out it dated from around 1844, a generation before Impressionist painters had any influence on the music of Debussy at the end of the century). This was “Rain, Steam and Speed – the Great Western Railway” – since I can’t find my old LP at the moment, I can only say I’m “pretty sure” this is the painting, since Angel used a series of Turner prints for several recordings in a series of works by Vaughan Williams and Elgar. [See P.S. below.]

So I started reading the liner notes and saw words probably like luminous and magical and a description of the opening with its C-natural pedal underneath a haunting D major horn-call. I wasn’t sure how that would work – hey, if it’s in D Major, it’s a C-sharp, right? – so I thought, not knowing much about contemporary music at the time, though I’d been composing for a few years already, perhaps I should look into this. There were doubts – after all, I’d never spent money on a recording of a piece I hadn’t already heard before, and then there was that song, “Linden Lea.” I went through the rest of the LPs, browsed around the store waiting for my mom and dad to finish their shopping, then came back to the LP bins again and decided at the last minute, “Okay...”

It was the first recording I’d bought of a piece of music, sound unheard.

With some caution – I so didn’t want to be disappointed – I started to play it. There was the C-natural in the cellos and basses, that horn call in D Major and then the violins come in with some slight phrase that certainly doesn’t sound like it belongs in D Major either. But I was hooked by its “luminous” magic and sat there transfixed, only breaking my concentration when I had to get up to flip the LP over to the second side to hear the rest of it (back in the days when you had to do stuff like that).

It was while listening to the third movement that I had what was probably the closest thing I’d ever had to a religious experience listening to a previously unknown piece of music – perhaps “spiritual experience” is a better expression. And it never left me: every time I hear it, I am left with the same sense of awe and, above all, love for this music.

So I quickly went out and bought the other symphonies. In about 2 years, I’d collected all nine of them.

I loved the “London” Symphony and found a melody in the slow movement (played by the viola solo) that brought tears to my eyes the only time I heard it live (conducted by some English conductor at Eastman who must’ve been in his 80s then, not a name I knew or remember).

I was amazed by the Sixth which is usually described as a “War” Symphony – the gentle, transcendent Fifth had been written in the midst of World War II but the intense, dramatic and often violent Sixth was composed in the years following the war. It ended with this long, slow pianissimo movement, by comparison static, bleakly oscillating between two chords that just hung there, never going anywhere the way you expect chords to do. And then it just stopped. Since this recording ended with a thank you from the composer made immediately after the recording – “My thanks to the orchestra... and TO the lady harpist...” – you had to hurry to the record player and lift the needle if you didn’t want to spoil the mood, which in itself already spoiled the mood. But I enjoyed listening to the composer’s voice, and coming after that music, it sounded comforting as well.

The Eighth Symphony was a blast, especially the final “Toccata” with all of its percussion clanging and banging away, swoops of harps and vibraphones and the famous tuned gongs – how could a man of 80 write such youthfully vibrant music?

The Ninth, darker and less “on the surface,” perhaps, than the others, mystified me and I didn’t care as much for it. I still keep thinking I need to get back to this one. After all, he died right after the recording session, coming home tired, then “after eating a bowl of bananas, going to bed,” dying in his sleep at the age of 85.

That had only been a few years earlier, actually: I was buying these recordings in the mid-'60s, not even ten years after he died. You think of composers writing classical music as guys who died, like, a hundred years ago. But at that time, World War I wasn’t even yet 50 years ago... that seemed like an eon to a kid like me (I mean, my parents were almost 50!!).

The next symphony I bought was the Fourth which even the composer said he didn’t like. It was abrasive and muscular, not exactly something you could “love,” a far cry from the tranquility people generally associate with his style. But I liked it from the first hearing. It amused me, years later when I was working at the radio station, that I played this on a Friday night, cringing that people were going to call and complain about this “modern music.” Sure enough, the phone rang but not with a complaint: the guy said he never liked classical music and had tuned in thinking it was Saturday night, time to hear the “space music” on Echoes, but this grabbed his attention and he had to know what it was so he could go out and buy it for himself!

I found the Seventh after I’d seen the movie on late-night TV. It’s taken from the film score he wrote for “Scott of the Antarctic” and while it’s a very “picturesque” work (in the sense it paints a suitable picture of its source, the frozen landscape of ice and snow), I never found it particularly memorable. That didn’t stop me from programming it every August during Dog Days – great music to cool off by. Members of the orchestra, walking off the stage after its premiere, walked past the conductor, clapping their arms around them and going “Brrrr!”

The last symphonies I heard were two of the earliest ones – the “Pastoral” Symphony (No. 3) which also left me feeling somewhat blank though it was very “picturesque,” also. This is the symphony a critic described as what a cow sees, looking over a fence. This undramatic, nostalgic wash of sound with its folk-inspired modalities and (supposedly) lack of any sense of climax – at least in the traditional symphonic sense – branded Vaughan Williams as a composer of the English “cowpat” school, as another, more modernist composer scathingly called it. For me, it was pretty, but I preferred the others: even though the Fifth is similar in scope (minus the cow), it never struck me the same way.

His First Symphony, the “Sea” Symphony, begun in 1909, is a vast choral symphony from beginning to end, setting the words of American poet Walt Whitman, a poet Vaughan Williams came back to frequently throughout his career, a poet who was hardly the equivalent of these English “pastoralists.” But once we got past the opening moments – truly, one of the grandest openings to hit you right between the ears – for some reason I found myself drifting off, unable to focus on it. Beautiful, certainly, but I never quite developed a liking for it. It’s not that I found it an hour long yawn or anything, but I decided I wasn’t going to make the effort to go hear it live even when the York Symphony and the Lancaster Symphony each played it within the past few years. Lots of people love it and I don’t “knock” the piece – it just doesn’t speak to me in the same way as the Fifth or the Sixth do.

It was great to see the recently appointed conductor at the Reading Symphony, the English-born Andrew Constantine, program Vaughan Williams’ Sixth last season. That was one concert I would’ve driven to hear, if I’d been able, but conflicts got in the way.

The Harrisburg Symphony, also this past season, performed one of Vaughan Williams’ choral works written between the World Wars, his setting of the “Dona Nobis Pacem” which also includes the poetry of, among others, Walt Whitman. It is a far from “peaceful” work – at times harrowing and dejected, before ending with that same transcendent approach that hopes for a better world, one without the brutality of war but with a sense of resignation to the reality we know will be otherwise, a very personal and introspective sense of hope. It was a riveting work (and performance) which almost overshadowed the “other” piece on the program, except it was, after all, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, the “Choral” Symphony with its more public, more universal sense of hope. But for many people I talked to afterwards, it was the Vaughan Williams that struck them more deeply, perhaps because it had been an unknown quantity when they walked in to hear a great favorite.

This past Saturday night, then, I was browsing through the CD bins, now greatly reduced from the last time I’d been at a store not far from the site of that department store I was browsing through the LPs some forty years ago (time flies whether you’re having fun or not). And there was a CD of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fifth Symphony with Barbirolli conducting, that same performance (minus the J.M.W. Turner cover art, alas). Now, I know I had other recordings of it on CD – the one I must get, though, is the Chandos recording w/Richard Hickox conducting: clearly the best interpretation of the piece I’ve heard – but I decided, for old times sake, to add this one to my collection (even as a budget reissue, it was still more expensive than that original LP had been).

For the 1940s, especially during war-time, it must've seemed a far cry from modern music. It still does, today - still in war-time, incidentally - but one thing hasn't changed: it still speaks to me just as it did when I first heard it. And though I may view Elliott Carter and Olivier Messiaen as more influential composers for me, today, there is still that sense of wonder the Fifth Symphony opened for me when I was a kid, that music could be like this...

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P.S. Added Saturday, August 30th.

A blog-reader who also loved that Barbirolli recording with the Turner cover wrote to say he also wasn’t sure originally which painting it was on the cover until he went to NYC’s Metropolitan Museum exhibit of Turner paintings and came face to face with it: he’s very sure it was “The Snowstorm.”

I had seen this one when I was googling for Turner images and thought this was definitely one of the two paintings used as Angel cover art for these two recordings. I remembered something about a railroad for the one with Vaughan Williams’ 5th, though, and thought, looking at them both, that the “Snowstorm” was too dark for that piece. But who knows? I have not listened to these recordings probably since the late-1970s and may not even have seen them except to pack them up in boxes for five subsequent moves in the intervening 30 years. I probably still have about 4,000 LPs in unpacked boxes in the basement, now: they are down there, somewhere...

Oh, the other LP I’m talking about was Elgar’s Introduction & Allegro plus the Serenade in E Minor on one side with Vaughan Williams’ “Tallis” Fantasia and Greensleeves on the other (it would be easy to admit the “Tallis” side quickly wore out).

By the way, if you’re in the New York City area, go to the Met’s Turner Exhibit which continues till September 21st! His paintings are truly amazing. I’ve never seen them “live” but friends of mine who have say it’s an amazing experience – “stunning in person,” as this reader wrote.

Speaking of the Angel LP, I don't recall which orchestra Barbirolli conducted for that recording, but the one I just bought this past week is with the Philharmonia Orchestra (see link, above). Checking on-line, I thought he had also recorded the symphony with the London Symphony Orchestra which has also been reissued on an Angel/EMI CD, but on closer inspection, the Bax Tintagel is with the LSO, the 5th with the Philharmonia Orchestra of London, so that would appear to be the same recording, made in May 1962 and released on Angel the following year. I'm pretty sure I have this one somewhere, too, but at least most of my CDs are already unpacked - not exactly sorted, just unpacked...

These LPs, by the way, were also my introduction to the great English conductor, Sir John Barbirolli. You can read more about him and his tenure at the New York Philharmonic over "On an Overgrown Path."

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