So moved was Rachmaninoff by the beauty of Vaughan Williams’s music that he openly wept during the performance.
Recently I realized I had some holes in my listening habits for one of my favorite composers, Ralph Vaughan Williams. I have listened to some of Vaughan Williams’s most popular pieces to death. These would include The Lark Ascending, Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, Songs of Travel, Dona Nobis Pacem, Hodie, A Sea Symphony, and Symphony Nos. 2, 5, and 7.
Ralph Vaughan Williams : Norfolk Rhapsody No.1
London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Bryden Thomson. Paintings by the English artist Colin W. Burns.
All along, I’ve been aware of other pieces by Vaughan Williams such as Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1, In the Fen Country, Overture to the Wasps, Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus, and Serenade to Music. We’ll take a brief survey of them here.
The Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1 is an early composition from 1905-1906. There were three rhapsodies but the first is the only one to have survived in its entirety. Norfolk Rhapsody No. 2 exists in a version that has been completed by lesser composers. Norfolk Rhapsody No. 3 is completely lost.
Vaughan Williams: In the Fen Country
Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, Sir Neville Marriner
Vaughan Williams himself went to Norfolk and gathered folk tunes that he incorporated into his rhapsodies. When I heard the energetic sea shanty tune mid-way through Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1 all I could think was that NFL films copied that music note for note at some point.
Right next to Norfolk is The Fen Lands or Fen Country. This marshy land has been inhabited since at least the bronze age. A Roman causeway linking The Fens with central England still exists. For the most part, The Fens have been drained, creating dry grassland and open spaces.
The composition by Vaughan Willimas was written in 1904 and later revised in 1905 and 1907. It received its premiere in 1909 under the baton of Sir Thomas Beecham. In the Fen Country is the earliest composition by Vaughan Willimas that he allowed to remain in his oeuvre.
The Wasps - "Overture" by Ralph Vaughan Williams
Hallé Orchestra cond/ Sir Mark Elder
Musically it is somewhat reminiscent of Borodin’s In the Steppes of Central Asia. In the Fen Country invokes that same feeling of open sky and grassland but it has an English lushness that is missing from Borodin’s more arid composition.
Vaughan Williams wrote The Wasps as incidental music for the Aristophanes play of the same title. Written in 1909, it is another relatively early composition. The Overture to the Wasps is performed most often, just like Beethoven's overtures to incidental music for Egmont and Coriolan and Mendelssohn’s Midsummer’s Night Dream.
Vaughan Williams: Five Variants of "Dives and Lazarus"
Academy of St Martin in the Fields
When listening to this music, I couldn’t help but hear that the composer of Pixar’s A Bug's Life must have been familiar with this music. The tunes are too alike.
If you have consistently attended an Anglican, Episcopal, United Church of Christ or Catholic Church, then you are familiar with Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus. The tune has been set to several different hymn texts that are used throughout the liturgical year.
Serenade to Music
In 1938, Vaughan Williams wrote his Serenade to Music to honor the 50th anniversary of conductor Henry Wood’s first concert. The text is taken from the fifth act of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.
Sergei Rachmaninoff, having played the solo in his Piano Concerto No. 2 in the first half of the concert, was in the audience for the premiere. So moved was the great Russian by the beauty of Vaughan Williams’s music that he openly wept during the performance.