Sierra Chamber Society Program Notes

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)

Six Studies in English Folksong for Cello and Piano (1926)

Phantasy Quintet for two violins, two violas, and cello (1912)


Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)

Six Studies in English Folksong for Cello and Piano (1926)

"I am told that when grapevines were first cultivated in California the vineyard masters used to try the experiment of importing plants from France or Italy and setting them in their own soil. The result was that the grapes acquired a peculiar individual flavor, so strong was the influence of the soil in which they were planted. I think I need hardly draw the moral of this, namely, that if the roots of your art are firmly planted in your own soil and that soil has anything individual to give you, you may still gain the whole world and not lose your own soul."

Ralph Vaughan Williams

National Music (1934)

Ralph (pronounced "Rafe") Vaughan Williams is perhaps best known for his work for strings Fantasia on Greensleeves. However, this eminent English composer’s catalog of works includes six operas, ballets, film scores, church music, hymn tunes, choral works, partsongs, symphonies, concerti, and many songs. Chamber music plays a rather small part in his total output. All of his mature works are informed by his love of early English music and Folksong. He was a late bloomer as a composer, for he did not find his own voice until his mid-thirties. Perhaps the fact that he came from a well-to-do English family (his great uncle was none other than Charles Darwin) enabled him to eschew a career in music (or anything else for that matter) in sharp contrast to fellow composers Gustav Holst and Frank Bridge. He was able to mature slowly. His interest in Folksong and Tudor music helped him to find his own voice, while through his researches he helped to bring back to light the treasures of Purcell and Tudor Era composers, in addition to English Folksong. The Six Studies in English Folksong are one of a handful of Vaughan William' s chamber works. They were composed for the cellist May Mukle in 1926. There are alternate versions of this work for violin, viola, clarinet, bassoon, tuba, and baryton with piano. His own admonition on the setting of folksongs was that they be "treated with love," and so they are; each song tastefully and skillfully matted and framed to reveal the beauty of the song. Brevity enhances the effect.

The songs thus treated are: Lovely on the Water (The Springtime of the Year), Spurn Point, Van Dieman’s Land, She Borrowed Some of Her Mother’s Gold, The Lady and the Dragon, and As I Walked Over London Bridge.

1995-96 Season, Program IV , Sunday March 17, 1996

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"Vaughan Williams was a big man, tall, heavy-set, somewhat flabby. His head was large and had magnificent dignity and strength. His jaw was square and his lips thin. As he spoke, in his soft and well-modulated voice, his eyes blinked frequently, for they were bloodshot, and he seemed troubled by them. They were sad and contemplative eyes. To the casual observer he appeared to be the composer of storybook reputation. His reflectiveness gave him the air of being absent-minded. When he strolled in the streets, sometimes in the rain, absorbed with his thoughts, he was oblivious to everyone and everything. Besides, he had the sublime indifference to dress that tradition has so long established as a trait of the great composer. His coat was usually too large for him, his trousers were baggy. He often wore an old bowler hat."

David Ewen, The New Book of Modern Composers, Alfred A. Knopf: New York 1961

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872- 1958)

Phantasy Quintet for two violins, two violas, and cello (1912)

Continuing Mr. Ewen’s reminiscence of R.V.W.: "When you tried to speak to Vaughan Williams about his own work he became as diffident as a schoolboy. He evaded questions about himself as though he had not heard them. He seemed to dislike intensely to discuss what he had done, or why he did it. Once I happened to remark to him that his F minor Symphony puzzled me since it was so different from the works that preceeded it. His only answer was a slight shrug of the shoulders and a casual remark that there is no explaining a composer’s style. A true composer wrote what he felt, and that was that; he does not sit down and theorize before putting down his feeling on paper. He, himself, did not know many times why he had chosen a certain idiom or manner. When I asked him, on another occasion, about his latest works and their nature, the answer, when it came, was not from his own lips but from those of his wife.’He will never talk about himself,’ she said.’It is useless to try to make him do it.‘

His attitude seemed to be, though he did not say so in so many words, that he was a composer because he felt the necessity to write music. Composing was a part of his daily life, as eating and breathing were. Vaughan Williams composed continually because he had to. Why speak about one’s musical activities any more than about one’s respiratory or digestive system? Some of his works were good in his eyes, others were not. But to talk about them at all embarrassed him, almost as though creation was too much of a personal function for him to discuss it openly. Yet when he spoke about the music of other composers, he became as effusive as he had previously been shy and retiring. With a true generosity of spirit he spoke about the music he admired. Generally speaking, he did not at the time seem to be sympathetic with experimental music, though a few scattered works in that vein by Alban Berg and Hindemith interested him. ‘There are some modern works that remind me that I’m old-fashioned and make me grateful for it,’ he said to me softly. ‘Other modern works also remind me I’m old-fashioned but make me ashamed of myself.’ In one of the rare moments in which he was tempted to speak about his creative work, he said to me; ‘I am a composer,’ which is to say he accepted his work as a tailor or an architect accepts his. ‘I always try to do my very best. But whether my music is good or bad, it is always honest, and by that I mean that I could not put down on paper a line that I did not feel in every part of me.’"

Ralph (pronounced "Rafe") Vaughan Williams is perhaps best known for his work for strings Fantasia on Greensleeves . However, this eminent English composer’s catalog of works includes six operas, ballets, film scores, church music, hymn tunes, choral works, partsongs, symphonies, concerti (among these a concerto for tuba and orchestra, and a romance for harmonica and orchestra), and many songs. Chamber music plays a rather small part in his total output. All of his mature works are informed by his love of early English music and Folksong. He studied music at the Royal College of Music in London, as well as Trinity College, Cambridge. Returning again to the Royal College, he became a pupil of Hubert Parry and Charles Stanford (both of whose music has enjoyed a revival in recent years). He traveled to Germany where he studied with Max Bruch, after which he returned to England to study at Cambridge, where he received his doctorate in 1901. Dissatisfied with his work, and feeling in need of further study, he headed off to Paris in 1909 to study with Maurice Ravel (a few years his junior). Prof. F.H. Shera writes "His recourse to Ravel as a teacher had nothing to do with acquiring Ravel’s personal style for future reproduction. His self-criticism had told him while he was in the act of fashioning ‘A Sea Symphony’ that his own technique was still clumsy and inchoate. He went to the man whose suppleness of mind could help him to clear away what was stodgy and uncommunicative in his own. He came back with his powers of expression clarified." He was a late bloomer as a composer, for he did not find his own voice until his mid-thirties. Perhaps the fact that he came from a well-to-do English family (his great uncle was none other than Charles Darwin) enabled him to eschew a career in music (or anything else for that matter) in sharp contrast to his fellow composers Gustav Holst and Frank Bridge. He was able to mature slowly. His interest in Folksong and Tudor music helped him to find his own voice, while through his researches he helped to bring back to light the treasures of Purcell and the Tudor Era composers.

The Phantasy Quintet was written at the request of one W.W. Cobbett (1847-1937), industrialist, amateur violinist, chamber music enthusiast and patron, as well as compiler and editor of the Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music. His endowment of a prize for English chamber music, The Cobbett Competition, was responsible for the creation of works by Bridge, Britten, Ireland, Stanton and Howells, among others, all based on Cobbett’s concept of modeling a work on the Elisabethan form of "Fancy" or "Phantasy" - a single movement work, or four sections compressed into a single movement and played without pause. Vaughan William's contribution, a four movement work, was neither a competition entrant nor a commission. Each of the brief connected movements is based on a pentatonic theme heard at the outset by the first viola. The Prelude, in a mood of quiet mystery, merges into the lively Scherzo, featuring a vigorous ostinato rhythm that gently subsides into the pensive Saraband; here the cello is silent, the other instruments muted, until the opening of the Burlesca where the cello introduces the wry folk-like theme which is bandied about by all, in contrapuntal figurations, though not without a glance back at the Prelude.

The Phantasy Quintet was first performed in March 1914.

1998-1999 Season, Program I , Sunday October 11, 1998

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All original text on this page copyright 2000 by Joseph Way