Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Vaughn Williams: Orchestral Works

I'm listening to Vaughan Williams for the very first time today.

Today will also likely be the last time I'll listen to Vaughan Williams.
Barry Wordsworth and the New Queen's Hall Orchestra
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)

Orchestral Works: Fantasia on Greensleeves; Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis; Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1; In the Fen Country
Argo/Decca, 1994

Among England's best known and best regarded composers, Vaughan Williams follows a long line of European classical music composers (Brahms, Liszt, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, Ravel, Borodin) who were inspired and influenced by folk music from their native countries.

However, here is the challenge for me with Vaughan Williams' music: it is simply too rich. Too rich with emotion, too rich in orchestration, too rich in sickly-sweet major keys, too rich in swelling chords and too rich with melodrama.

If you are a music composer and you want your listeners to experience strong emotions from your music, at least gradually build things up. Vaughan Williams, however, starts all of his works in a state of high drama--and then keeps them pegged there--the entire time.

But once you start with melodrama, where do you go from there?

Here's an analogy: In film, can you make your moviegoers start crying the instant the movie starts? In literature, will your readers feel connected to your main characters if you kill them off with some plot device in the first chapter? Even if you tried to extract that much of an emotional connection with your audience that quickly, your audience will likely resent you, thinking they're being cheaply played. You have to let things build gradually, work up to things a bit. Hold off on the bathos for a little while.

Listener notes for Vaughan Williams: Orchestral Works:

Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis:

1) The melodrama starts as early as the 1:20 mark in this track. And if you want to hear a textbook series of maudlin, swelling, shimmering, string chords, there's an excellent example at 2:20, and then a particularly good (and long, and overwrought) example from 9:40-11:50.

Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1:

2) This work is based on three fisherman's folk tunes: The Captain's Apprentice, A Bold Young Sailor, and On Board a Ninety-Eight.
3) Talk about horribly boring trumpet parts: they get to play "bah bah bah bahhhh" at 3:25 and again at 5:12, and then it's counting rests most of the rest of the way. Only in the seventh and ninth minute of this 11-minute work do they finally get an all-too-brief, somewhat interesting part to play. I wouldn't want to have to play this work too many times in a classical music season.

The Lark Ascending:

4) A question for the string players: Are these works considered fun for you to play? I have no context, but it does sound like the violin solo in The Lark Ascending might be both challenging and interesting to play.

Fantasia on Greensleeves:
5) This theme, instantly recognizable, gets wrapped up in a big cloak of melodrama, replete with plenty of harp parts, layers and layers of string chords and enough violin tremolo parts to send the musicians into physical therapy.

Five Variants of "Dives and Lazarus":
6) Oh the melodrama! It starts right away in this work and never lets up. Sometimes I feel like I'm listening to an Enya CD. But just to prove that opinions differ, the liner notes accompanying this CD describe this piece as "sensuous."

In the Fen Country:
7) This work was one of Vaughan Williams' earliest efforts to compose music around traditional folk melodies, setting him off in a creative direction that he followed for the remainder of his life: in my Essential Canon of Classical Music, author David Dubal writes that Vaughan Williams' "creative world was born: he would become a sophisticated and complex composer, but the nourishment he received from the simplicity and sincerity of folk sources would always remain a spiritual necessity."
8) Nice to hear the deceptively-named English horn get a little bit of a chance to shine at the beginning in this work.
9) There are some intonation problems in the orchestra in this track, notably among the trumpets in the rare instances that they play. I'll admit, though, that the music on this CD is otherwise exceptionally well performed. There is hardly a single missed note, and very few off-key notes, on the entire disc.


sydhsrimper said...

The reviewer speaks a load of complete tosh. If he complains of too much drama then he should not listen to Vaughan Williams 4th or 6th Symphonies. This music is definitely not for musical wimps and wusses.

Daniel said...

You make a fair point, and as a matter of fact, I most likely won't. :) Thanks for the warning.