by Geoffrey Larson
The Seattle Chamber Music Society presents Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Quintet in D major on July 16, On Wenlock Edge for Tenor, Piano and String Quartet on July 18, and How Cold the Wind Doth Blow and selections from Along the Field on July 23 at Nordstrom Recital Hall.
Does the traditional music of your country have a characteristic sound? Do composers of the same nationality write music that has a typical sound, or common traits? Like every budding composer, a young Ralph Vaughan Williams (pronounced Rayf) was fascinated by these questions as he searched for his own musical identity. Raised in London in the late 19th century, Vaughan Williams created works of music that grew out of the sounds of traditional British culture and merged with the forward-thinking aesthetic of the 20th century, creating a sound that is proud, dignified, and deeply personal. To understand why this music sounds quintessentially British, one must consider Vaughan Williams’ compositional journey and the elements of the nation’s culture that he cared so deeply about.
Vaughan Williams’ early struggles to find his own voice as a composer were largely affected by the state of the contemporary English musical scene at the turn of the century, which he regarded as somewhat stagnant. He sought out a more diverse education than his peers, traveling to Berlin in 1897 to study with Max Bruch and Paris in 1908 for studies with Maurice Ravel. Rather than assimilate these foreign musical influences, however, Vaughan Williams turned to traditional English music to guide his inspiration. In his 1912 essay “Who Wants the English Composer?” he lamented the status of his fellow countrymen in the profession and the general lack of “Englishness” of English composers:
"Nobody wants the young English composer; he is unappreciated at home and unknown abroad. Indeed, the composer who is not wanted in England can hardly desire to be known abroad, for though his appeal should be in the long run universal, art, like charity, should begin at home. If it is to be of any value it must grow out of the very life of himself, the community in which he lives, the nation to which he belongs."
It was this idea of “musical citizenship” that drove Vaughan Williams’ creation, in the same manner of composers of the Romantic nationalist period such as Czech composer Bedřich Smetana and Polish composer Frederic Chopin. He was distinguished by his supreme reverence of folk tradition. On Wenlock Edge, a six-song cylcle for tenor, string quartet, and piano completed in 1909, is an early example of the emergence of Vaughan Williams’ confident personal voice. Though the piece’s compositional techniques bear impressionistic echoes of Ravel, the work draws on music of Tudor England. A setting of text from A.E. Housman’s 1896 book of prose, A Shropshire Lad, the work has an honest, straightforward beauty. A work of around the same time, the Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, pays homage to the famous English church composer of the 16th century, revered for the supreme grace and distinctly British sound of his music.
Vaughan Williams was active on the English political scene, and was a highly social composer; he was intimately concerned with the layman’s reaction to his work. He shared these ideals with Gustav Holst, and they met on regular “field days” to discuss and critique each other’s work until Holst’s death in 1934. Vaughan Williams was interested in every musical occasion: large or small, amateur or professional. The large amateur choral system remains a massive part of British musical culture to this day, and adaptations of traditional British folk songs are a large part of Vaughan Williams’ choral catalog. His musical legacy encompasses everything from his extensive vocal output to chamber music, operas, symphonies, and large-scale orchestral depictions of life and nature in Britain.
In Hungary, Béla Bartók and Zoltan Kodály recorded and collected folk songs sung by primary sources as early as 1906, some of the first folk musicological research. The influence of this work is pervasive in their music. In the United States, Brooklyn-born city boy Aaron Copland toured the country in the 1930s and 1940s experiencing forms of folk music that were largely foreign to him. Just as this music fascinated his ears, it found its way into his famous populist music. Many composers venerated traditional music of their home country through their own personal aesthetic, and Ralph Vaughan Williams was one of the most passionate among them. Though great works like the Sea Symphony and The Lark Ascending are popular all over the world, they are especially revered in Great Britain, where they have become an essential part of the fabric of British culture. They represent the development of a characteristic modern British sound grown from traditional music, created with the unhurried, dignified, fervent purpose with which Vaughan Williams composed.
Geoffrey Larson is the Music Director of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra.