From Vaughan Williams in London to Rachmaninov in Rimini

ralph vaughan williams

During a late summer adventure that took me to Rimini, Italy, I was able to stop over in London for a day to catch a concert at the Royal Albert Hall in the wonderful Proms series, which is one of the musical glories of that great city.

I’ve never been particularly taken with the symphonies of Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958).  I always loved his Serenade to Music, Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, and The Lark Ascending, but I questioned his stature as a major symphonist.  However, I was able to reevaluate my retarded appreciation on the evening of August 16, when the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, under conductor Andrew Manze, presented the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Symphonies in a row.  That may sound like a Vaughan Williams overdose, even for his committed fans, of which there were many present in the full hall.  Not so.  Manze was making a case for Vaughan Williams, and, even through the haze of my jet lag and the less than great acoustics of the cavernous venue, I was soon convinced that my neglect has been my loss.

I confess that it had been a considerable time since I listened to any Vaughan Williams symphony.  This made the impact of the Manze concert all the greater.  It was like getting smacked upside the head, brought abruptly out of a daze, not in a painful way, but with the sharp realization of the glories of this music.  How can I have not heard these when I first encountered this music many decades ago?  Who knows what finally sheds the scales and opens the ears?

Vaughan Williams certainly got a bad wrap from some of his fellow countrymen and contemporaneous musicians.  Perhaps that helped to put me off. Philip Heseltine, who composed under the name Peter Warlock, supposedly likened Vaughan Williams’ “A Pastoral Symphony” (Symphony No. 3) to a cow staring over a fence. Even crueler, Aaron Copland apparently said that, “Listening to the Fifth Symphony of Ralph Vaughan Williams is like staring at a cow for forty-five minutes.”

Anyone who retains the idea of Vaughan Williams as a member of the “cow pat” school, as composer Elisabeth Lutyens called it, would be quickly disabused of the notion by the wildly eruptive  start of the Fourth, which is if anything anti-pastoral and highly minatory.  If this is a cow looking over a fence, the fence is electrified and the cow has just been jolted into another pasture.  It certainly shocked London audiences at its premiere in 1935.

I think my jet lag and the Albert Hall acoustics softened the sound and made the Fourth a bit less alarming than it might otherwise have been, but still it was ferocious.

However, the softer ambience seemed to favor the mellowness and extraordinary beauty of the Fifth Symphony, in which Vaughan Williams returned to his more pastoral mode.  The first movement was exquisitely well done.  The third movement Romanza clearly had its inspiration in Sibelius, to whom Vaughan Williams dedicated the work.  Gentle string chords cradle the cor anglais solo that evokes, from Sibelius’s The Swan of Tuonela, perhaps a swan of the Thames.  Sibelius must have been pleased.  The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra played with a hushed loveliness that was breathtaking.  I cannot imagine this music being more finely shaded or warmly expressive.  The beauty of it was mesmerizing.

The Sixth Symphony is as different from the Fifth, as the Fifth is from the Fourth.  The shock of the Sixth is the extent to which Vaughan Williams moved from Sibelius to Shostakovich.  The Sixth is infused with Shostakovich’s influence with its exaggerated march, the manic episodes, and mechanical repetition.  Even the jazz part sounds like one of Shostakovich’s parodies.  One might be able to pass the Scherzo off as a newly discovered Shostakovich work and get away with it.  I don’t mean to suggest that the Symphony is entirely derivative; it is echt Vaughan Williams in its inimitable sound.  I simply mean that it is clear that, by 1947, Vaughan Williams had heard Shostakovich loud and clear.

In any case, this is a highly charged, nearly violent work that shows a clear relationship to the spirit of the Fourth.  It’s no mystery as to why this work became known as “the War Symphony,” displacing the Fourth from that designation.  It blows away any remaining shreds of the “cow pat” preposterousness regarding Vaughan Williams’ music. The Sixth also ends with an extraordinary Epilogue that never rises above pianissimo.  What Vaughan Williams called “whiffs of themes” float about in the ether.  It is eerie music.  Some claim it to be a depiction of desolation.  Manze showed that it is beautiful and strangely touching.

The Proms concert has driven me back to listening to Vaughan Williams.  Of the various versions I have of the symphonies, the ones I am listening to most frequently are the RCA recordings by the London Symphony Orchestra, under conductor Andre Previn.  They are a riveting.  It is a salute to the quality of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and to Andrew Manze that their performances at the Royal Albert Hall were certainly equal to the best that I have heard.  In fact, the Previn reminds me of both the drive and subtlety that I heard from Manze.

It is a long road from London to Rimini.  My path took me through Rome on the way. In late August, there was no music to speak of in Rome.  It is hardly the height of the concert season.  Of course, there are street bands.  One evening, while dining at an outdoor restaurant several blocks off the Piazza Navona, a band was playing dance music.  My wife suggested that we get up and dance in the street, assuring me that the other patrons and those from the café across the way, would soon join us.  So dance we did, alone.  The other diners declined to join us, but soon took out their cameras or cell phones and began snapping our picture.  Had I a hat with me, I would have passed it.

The next day, we proceeded by train to Rimini, not for any explicitly musical purpose, but to participate in the Rimini Meeting, which was organized around the theme, “By Nature, Man Is Relation to the Infinite.” I have opined elsewhere on what I thought this theme meant.  Since the conference seemed to address just about every aspect of human experience, I should not have been surprised to find music included.

To my delight, I was treated one evening to a concert given by the Chorus of Priests of St. Petersburg.  I will never miss an opportunity to experience the ineffable impact of Russian basses. Three of the priests entered from the rear of the hall and sang antiphonally, as they were proceeding forward, with the chorus of priests on stage. The sound and the scene were moving.  I thought they were going to sing the full Rachmaninov Vespers, but this was not to be. They sang a short suite from it, and it was very affecting.  I think it makes a difference, once you have reached a certain level of technical proficiency in music, if you actually believe what you are singing.  These 35 men sang their hearts and souls out for love of Mary and Christ.  They went on to sing other sacred and popular music of the Russian tradition.  At one point, the music was interrupted for the recitation of a script from Patriarch Cyril.  It was only occasionally interspersed with music.  Unfortunately, I did not understand the Italian in which it was spoken, but it broke one of the cardinal rules of dramatic presentation: show, rather than tell.  Do not sermonize at a concert; let the music tell the story—which is what they did so well for the rest of the concert.

Home again, but not for long, I am packing for Munich, from which I will report on further musical adventures—but no dancing in the streets because, alas, my bride will not be with me!

Robert R. Reilly

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Robert R. Reilly is the author of The Closing of the Muslim Mind (ISI Books). He is writing a book on the natural law argument against homosexual marriage for Ignatius Press.

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