Today is a special day in music history: the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). Vaughan Williams is generally considered one of the greatest English composers — a designation not intended to damn with faint praise — and he is certainly one of my personal favourites. He had a wonderful melodic gift, and his music is sturdy and unpretentious. He was deeply in love with the folk music of England, and that shines through clearly in his own writing. Peter Ackroyd has said:
If … Englishness in music can be encapsulated in words at all, those words would probably be: ostensibly familiar and commonplace, yet deep and mystical as well as lyrical, melodic, melancholic, and nostalgic yet timeless.
and that is as good a description of Vaughan Williams’ music as one is likely to find.
I am going to be marking this day by listening to several of my favourite pieces — the Three Shakespeare Songs, his Symphony No.2 (the “London” symphony), the Phantasy Quintet, the Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. If it were not the middle of the summer I would listen to his Fantasia on Christmas Carols (Vaughan Williams wrote some great Christmas music).
I would love to share this music with you, and usually that means linking in YouTube videos. Regrettably, YouTube’s coverage of his music is poor. I have linked before to his wonderful orchestral piece The Lark Ascending, and his lovely setting of “Silent Noon”, and those are certainly worth hearing again.
I did find a recording of Five Variants on Dives and Lazarus, another of his best pieces. The tune here is better known as the hymn melody KINGSFOLD (used, for instance, in the hymn “I Feel the Winds of God Today”). This is only a portion of the piece, but a substantial one (Duration: 8:40):
My closest personal encounter with Vaughan Williams’ music came when a choir of which I was a member sang his Mass in G minor. It’s a beautiful piece for a cappella chorus, and it was lovely to sing. Here is a performance of the Kyrie (Duration: 4:43; the volume level is a bit low):
[Hat-tip to Whistling for the Ackroyd quote.]