by Stephen Johnson, BBC Proms Guide 2008
Anniversaries are rarely better timed than this one. No twentieth century British composer stands more in need of reassessment than Ralph Vaughan Williams. You might wonder why a composer whose position at the top of the Classic FM ‘Hall of Fame’ list is beginning to look like a permanent fixture should be a candidate for urgent revaluation. It’s not as though the work that regularly emerges as the nation’s favourite, The Lark Ascending, is anything less than top-drawer VW. But when pieces like this, or the equally familiar Fantasia on ‘Greensleeves’, are manipulated to sustain an image of the composer as – in the words of the Observer’s Mary Riddell – ‘the eulogist of Cream Tea England’, then a serious injustice is being done. More to the point, it is proof that we have lost contact with the real core of Vaughan Williams’s vision – and, for once, that hideously overused word hits the mark. Far from being a dreamy nostalgist, Vaughan Williams was a true modern: a highly original musical thinker whose greatest works bear the imprint of their times as much as those of Mahler and Shostakovich, and who has as much to say to us now as ever.
Let’s start with The Lark Ascending. Yes, on one level it is an exquisitely touching piece of musical birdwatching. What the poet George Meredith called the ‘chirrup, whistle, slur and shake’ of the skylark’s song is captured with an ease and lifelike fluency which is somehow also perfectly attuned to the nature of the violin. At the same time it’s a triumphant fusion of observed birdsong with the rhythms and modal inflections of English folk music, which Vaughan Williams had devotedly collected, catalogued and studied with his friend and fellow-enthusiast Gustav Holst. But there’s another, more unsettling dimension, most apparent at the ending, in which the violin-lark’s song vanishes skywards, fading at last into an almost inaudible ‘dying fall’ of a minor third. In a good performance it can be almost unbearably poignant, as though the music were hovering on the brink of an abyss – which in a sense it is. Vaughan Williams composed The Lark Ascending in 1914, on the eve of the ‘war to end all wars’. In his heart he surely realised that the dream of an English pastoral Eden was as doomed as the young men who worked the land and sang its ancient songs. Like Holst’s exactly contemporary ‘Mars’ from The Planets, The Lark Ascending confronts the coming horror, but more subtly, and with far greater poignancy.
This uncomfortable dual sidedness is typical of so many of Vaughan Williams’s finest works. Take another old favourite, the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. Here we find more pastoral folk colouring, a string orchestra set out in discrete ‘choirs’ evoking the misty spaces of Gloucester Cathedral (for which it was written), and Tallis’s Elizabethan hymn at the core adding a suitable Olde English flavour – or so it seems. In fact the exploitation of space as an element of musical drama is strikingly modern – Sir Harrison Birtwistle, no less, acknowledges it as a formative musical influence. The use of modal harmonies and free-floating, quasi-improvisatory folk rhythms is unlike anything in British music before (this is 1910): the rhythmic ‘contraction’ at the climax (3/4 – 5/8 – 4/8 – 3/8) is as daring and innovatory as anything the continental modernists were coming up with at the time. At the same time Vaughan Williams hints at much darker meanings: a reference to the death-intoxicated cantata Toward the Unknown Region in the ethereal opening chords tying up eerily with the words VW set to Tallis’s hymn in his then-controversial English Hymnal: ‘When rising from my bed of death.’ The glorious wide-spaced string chord at the start (in itself a brilliant piece of scoring) hovers for a moment like a memory of something primal and pure, then fades forever. As a whole the Tallis Fantasia can be understood as an increasingly impassioned quest to recapture that fleeting vision – a quest that fails.
Here we catch more than a glimpse of the artist whom a friend memorably summed up as ‘the Christian Agnostic’. Vaughan Williams was drawn again and again to religious subjects: the Anglican liturgy, the Latin Mass the Bible, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, William Blake’s idiosyncratic reinterpretation of the Book of Job; but he could also immerse himself in Walt Whitman’s pantheistic transcendentalism in his Sea Symphony or in Prospero’s nihilistic ‘We are such stuff as dreams are made on’ speech in his little choral masterpiece Three Shakespeare Songs. With Whitman he could sing ‘Bathe me O God in thee’ with spine-tingling fervour; and yet one suspects that there was a part of him that might equally have enjoyed Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion. This is not a mark of intellectual or spiritual confusion, rather a sign of courageous honesty. Like Jung or William James, Vaughan Williams knew there was something in religious experience, even if it eluded the formulations of any Credo. He explored what it meant to him in his operatic ‘morality’ The Pilgrim’s Progress, and still more movingly and originally in his wonderful Fifth Symphony, which reworks themes from the opera in a beautifully spun symphonic drama, finally resolving tension in a serene recreation of the sound of Tudor church music.
But Vaughan Williams also knew that, in the words of Thomas Hardy: ‘If a way to the better there be, it entails a full look at the worst’. The journey and final outcome of the Sixth Symphony (1944-7) could hardly be further from the Fifth’s warm benediction. Like the Fifth, Symphony No 6 begins with a kind of musical question: ‘What key am I in?’ But where in No 5 the ambiguity is relatively mild, the scoring soft and romantically beguiling, here all is harshness, turbulence, dissonance. Whatever Vaughan Williams may have said to the contrary, the symphony bears the imprint of the recently concluded Second World War like an open wound: the inhuman repeated trumpet-and-drum rhythm in the second movement; the Scherzo’s saxophone paying bitter tribute to a jazz musician killed in a Luftwaffe bombing raid. But ultimately VW was right: this is not a ‘War Symphony’. The extraordinary Epilogue looks deeper than that. Pianissimo (and therefore virtually expressionless) throughout, it unfolds – if that’s the word – in almost aimless drifting. Scraps of themes gradually home in on two chords: a sigh, or an ‘Amen’ that remains hopelessly impaled on its own dissonance – a dissonance that isn’t even resolved at the very end. This from the composer of ‘For all the saints’ and ‘Come down, O Love divine’: two of the most uplifting hymns in the Anglican hymnbook. Vaughan Williams is said to have been delighted when the composer Rutland Boughton described this unique anti-finale as ‘the Agnostic’s Paradisum’. It seems the very antithesis of the image of faith so movingly created at the close of the Fifth Symphony, as bleak and comfortless in its own way as anything by Shostakovich.
Vaughan Williams’s ability to balance these two antithetical visions – the Christian and the Agnostic; transcendent aspiration and realistic despair – without seeking a false, dubiously consoling synthesis (as Benjamin Britten attempted so disastrously in the conclusion of his contemporary The Rape of Lucretia), is the true mark of his greatness. That, and his unflagging ability to find the right musical means with which to express it. His last major work, the Ninth Symphony (completed at the age of 85), ends with a breathtaking distillation of this paradox. In the midst of a gaunt, slab-like orchestral landscape a dazzling chord of E major cuts through like an impossible sunburst. But as it rises and falls in huge waves, the chord is blurred by dissonant harmonies on three saxophones. It recalls the elderly W.B.Yeats, crying out similarly in the face of death: ‘Shall we in that great night rejoice?’ The radiant E major chord affirms, the saxophones sound rather less convinced. We are left with two possibilities, and challenged to make our own way between them.
Yet perhaps there is a kind of answer. Not long after he completed his convulsively violent, modernist Fourth Symphony (1931-34) and his choral-orchestral prayer for peace, Dona nobis pacem (1936), Vaughan Williams turned again to Shakespeare in one of his warmest, most delicious works, the Serenade to Music (1938). This sets words form the final scene from The Merchant of Venice, in which music is portrayed as offering a possibility of reconciliation and transcendence that the play’s ostensible Christian morality so strikingly fails to provide. And here, surely is a key. The composer who helped set up the National Youth Orchestra, who offered his support to young composers through the Society for the Promotion of New Music, who championed folk music as a living resource rather than as ‘heritage’, and galvanised this country’s amateur choral societies into a powerful social force in wartime, seems to have known ultimately where hope still lay. Perhaps that’s why even his bleakest music – the Epilogue of the Sixth Symphony, the coldly inhuman ‘Landscape’ movement of the Sinfonia Antartica (1949-52) – is never really depressing. Samuel Beckett, often portrayed as theatre’s great nihilist, candidly admitted that the urge to express in itself contradicted the seeming despair at the heart of works like Waiting for Godot and Krapp’s Last Tape: ‘If I really believe in nothing, why bother to say so?’ If saying something expresses hope, how much more so does singing about it? In an age when culture seems to offer distraction rather than anything genuinely affirmative, it is a message we need to hear.