Monday, May 12, 2014

Stuart & Friends: Vaughan Williams Steps Out on the Path

This Tuesday evening at 7:30 in HACC's Rose Lehrman Arts Center, it's this season's episode of Stuart & Friends which presents two works. On the first half, a mature but less-often-heard work by the Norwegian composer, Edvard Grieg: his Violin Sonata No. 3 in C Minor with Stuart and concertmaster Peter Sirotin. On the second half is an early and probably unknown work by the English composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams: his “Piano Quintet in C Minor,” adding other principal players of the Harrisburg Symphony string section into the mix – violist Julius Wirth, cellist Fiona Thompson, and bassist Devin Howell.

(You can read the earlier post about Grieg's Sonata here.)

RVW & Friend
If Grieg is better known for some of his relatively early successes – the Piano Concerto, written when he was 24, and music for Peer Gynt written in his early-30s – Vaughan Williams is better known for works written after 1910, a long list of works that ended with his 9th Symphony completed just months before his death at 85.

However, if Vaughan Williams had lived only as long as Schubert, for instance, this piece would be one of the last things he'd've composed and it's unlikely we would even remember his name today – unlike Schubert.

Vaughan Williams was, as he admitted, a late-bloomer despite having composed his first music when he was 6, a good age for the advent of prodigyhood. It's just that he never developed that way. Even as a composition student in London in the 1890s in his 20s, his compositional skills were slow to appear. He wrote the usual kind of “student stuff” but was never particularly successful in creating anything more than “beginnings” (or on occasion, “endings” – one of his unfinished student works was a finale for string quartet). This is not unusual – one could say the same of Gustav Mahler.

His teachers were not particularly compelling – a whole generation of pseudo-Germanic composers who imitated Mendelssohn and, more recently, Brahms. Perhaps the most original of this generation of English composers was Arthur Sullivan who, having tried his hand at symphonies and choral works, found financial success in his association with William S. Gilbert.

English music at this time was of two natures, basically: German and serious or English and light-hearted, the difference between, say Schubert or Wagner on the one hand, and dance-hall comedy on the other. Even though he detested it, young Gustav Holst, a would-be composer making a living as a trombonist, played in one such “Light Orchestra” even though his friend Vaughan Williams saw it as the foundation for his orchestral writing – and certainly the composer who created The Planets cannot be faulted for poor orchestration. It may be hard to hear the dance-hall origins in “Mars, the Bringer of War,” but there's more to a composer than his finest flowerings. There is also a good deal of fertilizer...

Vaughan Williams, for his part, had other ideas among the few options available to a young English musician. The son of a vicar, he was headed on the church organist path. He was also descended for the family of the famous potter Josiah Wedgewood and one of his great-uncles was Charles Darwin. Technically he didn't need to work for a living whereas his friend Holst could barely support himself as a trombonist (there's a joke there, somewhere) when he decided what he really wanted to do was be a composer, as if he wasn't poor enough already.

Vaughan Williams and Holst met in school in 1895 – the Royal College of Music in London – where most students said it wasn't so much what their teachers taught them but what they learned from each other. They would critique each others' music and discuss everything “under the sun from the lowest note on the double bassoon to the philosophy of Jude the Obscure” (then the latest literary controversy in England).

Vaughan Williams, c.1911
One of the things Holst was interested in was folk song. We think of this “folk-song movement” in which composers like Bartók and Kodaly would roam the countryside writing down songs they heard sung by Hungarian peasants as being new and revolutionary, though Rimsky-Korsakoff and other Russians did this in the 1880s. Bartók began his study in 1907 and is often considered the “father of 20th-Century folk-song composers.” But Holst and Vaughan Williams had already started this quite by accident during their “walking holidays” through the English countryside even before 1903.

I mention 1903 specifically because that's when Vaughan Williams wrote down his first bona fide English folk-song, something called “Bushes and Briars.” The following year he would compose a short (possibly one-movement) string quartet based entirely on the folk song, “As I Walked Out.”

The other reason I mention 1903 is because that's when he composed this “Piano Quintet” we're going to hear.

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Start your day with a Cup of Ralph
It is a rare treat for me to hear for the first time a work I've never heard before by someone who's been a favorite composer of mine since I was maybe 14 years old (in fact, between Britten and Vaughan Williams – not to mention my grandmother's own English origins – I would've said “a favourite composer”). This was sometime in 1963 and only five years Vaughan Williams' death. My first hearing was of his ubiquitous “Fantasy of Greensleeves” which I decided I would add to my own collection. Also on that LP (for those of you who remember LPs) was his “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis” which I remember as being one of those amazing experiences where I sat there, mouth gaping, at something so beautiful and so unlike anything else I was familiar with.

This dates from 1910, only 7 years after this unknown quintet.

Like many composers, their early works get lost in the back of the closet after their mature works make their career. It would be hard to call a work by a 31-year-old composer “juvenalia,” but that's basically what this is, compared to the symphonies and choral works he would compose later. 1910 is really where “the real Vaughan Williams” begins – not just the Tallis Fantasia but also his “Sea Symphony,” a work begun in 1906 that, beyond its opening, curiously still leaves me chilly, if not cold.

And in the interim, sometime during 1907-08, he went to Paris and studied with Maurice Ravel, even it's only for 3 months. The first work he composed after returning from Paris was his String Quartet in G Minor which clearly shows the influence of Ravel's style. (How different does this sound compared to the Quintet you can listen to, below?)

It is a student's job, basically, to devour everything in sight and, discarding what doesn't fit, find enough ideas that do which, once absorbed into the system, become the composer's own voice. This is not something that happens as soon as a composer begins composing: it evolves over time, if the composer's lucky.

And with Vaughan Williams, it started while he was writing this Quintet!

Listen to the opening movement with Trio Logìa & Friends:
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To my ear, it reflects what Vaughan Williams was “absorbing” at the time – certainly Brahms as filtered through his English sycophants and quite possibly Faure's 2nd Piano Quartet (also in C Minor) There are few touches that make me think of the mature Vaughan Williams I know and love. In fact, the first time I listened to this clip, I thought, “ugh, well, every student starts somewhere.” Just another derivative student piece. But hang in there.

However, the first thing you'll notice is this not a typical Piano Quintet in the formation of String Quartet and Piano. It's one violin and an added double bass (or, plainly speaking, just “bass”). Does it look familiar? Think Schubert on a fishing expedition during one of his own “walking holidays” when he and his friend, the singer Vogl, stopped in Graz where a keen amateur cellist wanted Schubert to compose something for this unusual combination because he owned the score of a similar kind of piece by Hummel and this would give them something to play on the program. Since the cellist (and more importantly, local business baron) loved one of Schubert's more famous songs, he wanted a movement of it to be a set of variations on that – and so it became the “Trout” Quintet.

Did Vaughan Williams choose this combination because friends of his – perhaps he played in the group, too: he was a violinist and violist as well – were playing the “Trout” and wanted a companion piece for a program? Unfortunately, I can find no reference to such an origin, but it's always possible (sheer right-brained conjecture on my part, future googling-scholars who find this on-line).

Regardless, it sounds very heavy – especially given the lower registers of viola, cello and bass – even without the dense textures beloved of Brahms and his imitators.

The movement begins with a “fiery allegro” but turns quite calm and much slower by the end. The second movement is officially the slow movement but it's far more lyrical than the first. The piano opens up into a hymn-like expanse of what started off sounding like a Germanic (if not Brahmsian) song.

Here's a Polish ensmble, Kameraliści Rzeszowscy, playing the Andante:
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It might bring to mind something by Elgar who had only just become a successful composer at the age of 42 (speaking of late-bloomers) when his Enigma Variations which just premiered in 1899 in London. Until then, Elgar himself was trying to find his voice and not doing too well.

No wonder Richard Strauss who conducted in London in the 1890s (Holst played in one of those orchestras) went home to Germany and announced that England was “The Land Without Music.”

Anyway, Vaughan Williams takes this hymn/song and expands it, does some typically Brahmsian things to it, all very beautifully – if you're not trying to figure out who the real composer is – and then ends without anything particularly note-worthy beyond its own beauty.

Then comes the third movement which has an entirely different sound at the beginning: listen to this “Fantasy,” a set of five variations on this opening theme:
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What is different about this? The strings play a single-line tune phrase by phrase which is then restated, harmonized, by the piano, again very hymn-like. But the harmony is different: the tune wanders around in an almost haphazard way and the piano pins it down with a standard chord progression. Only in the second phrase do we start hearing some “modal” tinges in the melody – outside the normal bounds of the major/minor tonality on which most of classical music is built on for the last three centuries.

At 1:20 is the first sign of the “real Vaughan Williams.” Just a glimpse – a chord progression that is so typically English that it's immediately recognizable as “an RVW fingerprint.”

Then he immediately turns this into a very Germanic variation! Well, you have to start somewhere.

For one thing, despite the occasional outbursts, this is generally a very placid movement for a finale and might bring to mind the English mood if not thesound of the “pastoral school” or what Americans derided as the “Cow-Looking-Over-the-Fence” School of Music (someone more into the Second Viennese School of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern also referred to it as the “Cow Patty” School of Music).

It isn't until we reach 6:10 – after a series of transformations ranging somewhere between amateurish and “having potential” – that a new sound begins to unfold. There are bell-like sounds in the piano (one things one could hear, walking through the English countryside, would be distant church bells). This extended coda is perhaps one of the finest moments in the whole half-hour-long piece – and it seems to come out of nowhere, complete with the tolling of bells, the change-ringing so beloved by English church-goers (the descending scales in the piano toward the very end).

Holst & RVW tramping the countryside looking for folk songs

Now, remember in 1903 how Vaughan Williams and Holst had gone walking through the country and they wrote down some folk songs they heard? “Bushes and Briars” – which, as he wrote it out, is in F Minor but not a very good “academic” F Minor. You can't harmonize this in text-book fashion.

Vaughan Williams jots down a folk song in 1903

The quintet doesn't use that tune but a tune of similar style. While many composers did quote folk-songs verbatim in their music (for example, Tchaikovsky in his 4th Symphony), many absorbed the characteristics of folk-songs but created their own original folk-song-like themes (even Bartok would do this). And I'm no expert in English folk songs (indeed, I'm no expert, period) to be able to recognize it as an actual song, so I'm assuming it's something inspired by the folk-songs he'd heard at that time. Nothing in what little literature there is that mentions this piece (at least, that I've found) would indicate its specific origin. But the opening theme, here, certainly has it roots if not in this song, at least in this experience – and I suspect this walking tour happened at some point between his completing the 2nd Movement and beginning the 3rd.

Again, that's sheer conjecture, but music and composers' lives do not exist in a vacuum (though they can be appreciated that way).

It is of no significance whatsoever to those who just want to enjoy some nice music. But to someone who wonders why this piece doesn't sound much like the Vaughan Williams they know – then, this may scratch the surface.

This is, perhaps, the acorn from which the might oak of Vaughan Williams' later career grew.

Vaughan Williams had already written some of his better-known songs - his first published piece was the song "Linden Lea," in 1901. It was after his discovery of "Bushes & Briars" that he composed some of his most beloved songs in the cycles The House of Life and Songs of Travel. He also wrote his 1st Norfolk Rhapsody and In the Fen Country, two strongly folk-inspired beauties, in 1904.

Now, also in 1904, Vaughan Williams the church organist began another project: editing the English Hymnal. And now he's scouring through old English music to find hymns that befit England and its historical traditions rather than sounding like Victorianisations of German chorales (keep in mind Victoria, who was queen until her death in 1901, was descended from a line of German princes who became Kings of England in the 18th Century and only took the name of “Windsor” after the start of World War I and they wanted to sever ties with their German ancestry).

In addition to writing some of his own hymn-tunes like the famous Sine Nomine ("For All the Saints") in 1906, one of the pieces Vaughan Williams discovered, poring over dusty manuscripts in old libraries, was a psalm-tune called “Why fumest in fight?” by the Renaissance composer, Thomas Tallis, back during the days of the Tudor kings and queens. It was this tune that Vaughan Williams felt inspired by the write what I consider his first mature English-sounding piece, the “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis” in 1910, only seven years after he'd completed this quintet.

It's recorded in 1974 and conducted by Leopold Stokowski who, incidentally, was a close friend of his fellow student Ralph Vaughan Williams back in their school days in 1890s London:
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Though hinted at before, the theme appears at 1:00 into the clip.

What a difference seven years can make!

- Dick Strawser

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