Despite Ralph Vaughan Williams’ extraordinary success as a composer of larger (and much more lucrative) musical forms, he wrote songs throughout his life, producing no fewer than thirteen song cycles and song sets, plus dozens of individual song settings.
Vaughan Williams’ songs, while humble in scope, offer listeners and performers wonderful insight into their composer’s uniquely broad musical imagination. Indeed, the songs are a microcosm of the depth of Vaughan Williams’ experience, and his genius for articulating his personal, political, and geographical history so precisely in musical terms.
In their delicacy, in their joy, and in the unique combination of modernism and nostalgia of their melodies and keyboard writing, Vaughan Williams’ songs ring out with a clearly articulated vision of their composer’s place within the shifting social, economic, and political climate at the dawn of the modern age.
The Vaughan Williams Song Project
Students on the Vaughan Williams Project will study and perform a program of songs that touches on every stage of Vaughan Williams’ creative life and career. From his early folk-song setting, to his inter-war explorations in song of the inner world of British poets, to the monumental cycle, Songs of Travel, our program of songs will challenge and inspire our students, and we hope, our audiences as well.
Scroll down to read and hear more about the great range of songs we will be studying and performing. And then click on the ‘auditions’ page to learn how you can join us as a performer, understudy, or observer, on our unique musical journey.
The Vaughan Williams Project will begin with the study of a group of Vaughan Williams’ folk song settings – two from his student years in the late nineteenth century, and one from the last decade of his life. Here we hear RVW’s musical voice blending beautifully with those of his predecessors, in particular with the voices, some named, some lost, that sing out from his indigenous musical heritage.
Vaughan Williams’ settings of two Dorset folk songs and poetry, ‘Linden Lea’ and ‘In the Spring’, were completed more than 50 years apart, the latter less than a decade before his death in 1958. The touching song ‘How can a tree but wither?’, composed to a poem by Thomas, Lord Vaux in 1896, shows RVW reaching the heights of song composition while still only in his mid-twenties. The blend of folk idioms with classical song style is as seamless as that found in the songs of Schubert or Schumann, whose pieces had begun to circulate through music periodicals and could be found on the piano in many English homes at the time.
You can listen to these three charming songs in these wonderful interpretations, below.
Songs of Travel
The centrepiece of the Vaughan Williams Project will be the superb song cycle, Songs of Travel, (1901-4), a setting of nine poems by the English writer Robert Louis Stevenson (pictured, right). Considered by many to be one of the greatest English songs cycles, it challenges performers and listeners alike with its heroism and with the delicacy in its drama. As an artistic rendering of the realisation that to grow in life means separation, it is unparalleled. With its galloping optimism, its bright vision of youth, and in its articulation of the inevitability of nostalgia, the cycle is a masterclass, both musically and poetically, in the depiction of love through loss.
It is no coincidence that Vaughan Williams chose the theme of a solitary wanderer for what was to be his first foray into large-scale song writing. Franz Schubert’s two great song cycles ‘The Beautiful Miller Girl’ (1824) and ‘Winter Journey’ (1828), both written to poems by Wilhelm Müller, depict a young man escaping his sorrow in the wilderness, a place initially of refuge, but where he eventually meets his end.
Robert Louis Stevenson’s traveller, in particular in Vaughan Williams’ rich imagining of him, is a rather less bleak (some would say more English) character than his Austro-German counterpart, but his journey is in many ways the same. His passage back to (rather than away from) his homeland becomes a journey from youth to age, from certainty to philosophical reflection, that ends in acceptance. Composed in very first years of the twentieth century, against the background of war and industrialisation, the song cycle clearly articulates the sense of both loss and of bravery felt by many young people as they faced new challenges at the dawn of the modern age.
A version of the Songs of Travel, orchestrated in part by Vaughan Williams and in part by his assistant, Roy Douglas, also exists for baritone and orchestra.
Conceived originally for baritone and piano, the song cycle for voice & piano (which we will study on this course) is published in both a low voice and a high voice version and is now sung (with permission of the RVW Trust) by both men and women.
House of Life
Vaughan William’s 1904 song cycle, House of Life, has been called ‘an expression of the English experience’ (Rogert R Tibbetts), formed into a new aesthetic, at the dawn of the modern age. A series of six songs written to sonnets by the Pre-Raphaelite poet and painter, Dante Gabriel Rosetti (pictured, above left), House of Life is a meditation on the concept of duality – life & death, time & eternity, erotic & Platonic love, matter & spirit.
In the cycle, Vaughan Williams explores the concept of the sublime through a unique marriage of poetry and music that is at once both tuneful and meditative. The cycle, like its contemporary, Songs of Travel, marks an important step forward in the history of English art song. Vaughan Williams lifted the genre out of he sentimentality of the parlour and into a new era of high-quality English song output that matched what German-speaking composers had been writing for nearly a hundred years.
Follow the link above centre to hear a wonderful performance of the cycle by Canadian baritone, Philip Sly. In the video above right, you can hear the inimitable Kathleen Ferrier’s touching rendition of the most famous song from House of Life, ‘Silent Noon’.
Four Poems of Fredegond Shove
While Nietzsche’s metaphysical battle-cry, ‘God is dead’, made popular by his novel, Thus spoke Zarathustra (1883-1891), seemed to many the herald the dawn of modernism, it in fact galvanized a creeping suspicion of religious ideology that had been developing among intellectuals since the publication of Phenomenology of Spirit by the German philosopher Hegel in 1809. The reaction to the growing shadow of nihilism among artists in the later nineteenth century was diverse. Some turned to ‘naturalism’, others to atheism. Still others, such as the English poet Fredegond Shove (1889-1949, whose surname rhymes with ‘grove’) turned first to spiritualism, and later to a modern articulation of catholic faith that combined an aspiration for piety with a mystical view of the natural world.
Shove was associated through her family to the Bloomsbury Group of writers. She was also Ralph Vaughan Williams’ niece through marriage. When Fredegond died, her sister, Ermendarde Maitland, is reported to have found poetry everywhere in her house: ‘fairly copied in note-books, scribbled on bits of paper, stuffed into bookcases, cupboards and desks – one would not have been surprised to have found them in the oven – literally hundreds of poems.’ Despite Shove’s industry, she published only two volumes of poetry in her lifetime. Four of these published works, ‘Motion and Stillness’, ‘Four Nights’, ‘The New Ghost’, and ‘The Water Mill’, which express a very British interpretation of mysticism articulated gently in nature, were set to music by Ralph Vaughan Williams between 1922 and 1925.
These songs can be heard in an especially sensitive rendition by Britons Ian Partridge and Jennifer Partridge, above.