At Leith Hill, he had been conducting the choirs since 1905 – making people with little musical skill achieve professional results. He was conductor of the Bach Choir from 1921-28. Yet despite these experiences, and his ability to produce extraordinary performances, he was seriously neglected by the record companies. Other than a few early acoustic discs, the only studio recording he made was of the Fourth Symphony in 1937. This ferocious, white-hot recording should have persuaded Fred Gaisberg at The Gramophone Company to do more, but VW the man made little impression on him. As Gaisberg put it in his autobiography, Vaughan Williams was 'self-effacing and silent to a degree, he had not the equipment for a good conductor and rarely essayed that role'. Not for the first time Vaughan Williams' modesty and under-stated style had a negative impact on perceptions of his music and music-making. So it was left to Vaughan Williams to be 'in attendance' and 'supervising' recordings by others of his own music.
Fortunately, over the years, a few broadcast recordings, conducted by Vaughan Williams, have come to light, including Dona Nobis Pacem and his Fifth Symphony. Now for the first time we can hear the gorgeous Serenade to Music conducted by the composer from a performance in 1951. It is a deeply expressive and romantic interpretation, using eleven of the singers involved in the original 1938 performance.
The Serenade to Music was commissioned by Sir Henry Wood for his Jubilee concert to celebrate 50 years as a conductor. The concert took place on 5th October 1938 and Wood wanted a work for singers - as many as could be gathered around him for his special occasion. Vaughan Williams came up with an ingenious solution. He set part of Act V, Scene I, of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice for 16 solo voices, with the individual quality of 16 chosen singers influencing the colour and phrasing of each part. The initials of each singer were placed in the score to mark their individual entries. Sir Henry Wood was moved to tears of emotion at the early rehearsals and Jessie Wood has written that 'During the first rehearsal the singers were so moved that their lips seemed unable to articulate'.
The Serenade to Music is one of the sweetest, most beautiful of all Vaughan Williams' works. The composer loved Shakespeare and was clearly inspired by the 'soft stillness' and 'sweet harmony' of the poetry. He had also met the 27-year-old Ursula Wood, on 31st March 1938, and they had been physically and emotionally close from the beginning. By the time Sir Henry Wood received the score on 2nd June 1938, Vaughan Williams' already romantic temperament would have been inspired afresh: "with sweetest touches pierce your mistress' ear, and draw her home with music".
The Pilgrim's Journey is a cantata for soprano, tenor and baritone soloists, choir and orchestra (or organ as in this recording), derived by Christopher Morris and Roy Douglas from Vaughan Williams' opera The Pilgrim's Progress. As Vaughan Williams had prepared In Windsor Forest for Sir John in Love and authorised Maurice Jacobson's concert version A Cotswold Romance from Hugh the Drover, there were good precedents for this arrangement of Pilgrim's Progress.
The idea was initially suggested by the Rev. G J Cuming in 1962 and Christopher Morris, then Musical Editor at Oxford University Press, chose the movements. Roy Douglas prepared the full score from the original orchestration. Eric Gritton arranged the organ accompaniment. The work was first performed at the Leith Hill Musical Festival on 26th April 1963, conducted by William Cole.
Vaughan Williams had set his first music to Bunyan's allegory in 1906 and his 'morality' The Pilgrim's Progress was produced for Covent Garden in 1951. Working on this music for around 45 years shows the depth of understanding and affection Vaughan Williams felt for Bunyan's powerful work. He was moved by the vividness and often trenchant prose, by the symbolism and poetry of the work and by Christian's quest for spiritual salvation as he searches for the Celestial City. The incorporation in Pilgrim's Progress of passages from the Bible, including the 22nd Psalm - The Lord is my Shepherd - and Psalm 121, Christ's words from the cross, impart a noble, mythical and contemplative quality to the music. Vaughan Williams had a great knowledge of sacramental theology and his work is imbued with religious symbolism adding to the cumulative, even overwhelming, power of the opera.
Christopher Morris and Roy Douglas set eight sections from the opera, as follows:
- Cast thy burden upon the Lord (tenor and baritone)
- Into thy hands, O Lord (baritone)
- Who would true valour see (soprano and baritone)
- Unto him that overcometh (women's chorus)
- Vanity Fair (tenor and baritone)
- He that is down (soprano)
- The Lord in my Shepherd (chorus only)
- Alleluia (soprano, tenor and baritone)
The final Alleluias are as moving here as in the opera, as Pilgrim's Way is seen, leading up to the Golden Gates.
Having received his first musical lessons at Rottingdean and Charterhouse schools, Vaughan Williams entered the Royal College of Music as a student in September 1890. From the beginning, Vaughan Williams was determined to study composition under Sir Hubert Parry. He had discovered Parry through his book Studies of Great Composers - and whilst at school had got to know some of Parry's works, including Judith. He remembered saying to his Mother that there was 'something peculiarly English in his music". He became a pupil of Parry after two terms studying Grade V harmony.
After a few years at Trinity College, Cambridge (1892-95) Vaughan Williams re-entered the RCM. As Parry had become Director, he was taught by Sir Charles Villiers Stanford. Stanford had a very different teaching style from Parry and, as Vaughan Williams put it "I made the great mistake of trying to fight my teacher". Vaughan Williams acknowledged that "With Stanford, I always felt I was in the presence of a loveable, powerful and enthralling mind".
This lecture on the teachings of Parry and Stanford provides a greater understanding of the style and contributions of these two great men to the musical and personal development of Vaughan Williams. The lecture is humorous, affectionate and insightful. Hearing VW's voice is moving in itself.
The short extract from the funeral service in Westminster Abbey on 19 September 1958 is a poignant conclusion to this 50th anniversary commemorative release. It was a warm late summer morning as Vaughan Williams' ashes were laid in the Musicians' Aisle, fittingly alongside Charles Villiers Stanford. A privileged few were there to see these ashes again when, on Monday 21 April 2008, Ursula Vaughan Williams' remains were interred alongside her beloved husband, united at last in death.
Stephen Connock Chairman,
Albion Records and Vice President, The Ralph Vaughan Williams Society
SERENADE TO MUSIC
- How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here will we sit and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.
Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold:
There's not the smallest orb that thou behold'st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins;
Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.
Come, ho! and wake Diana with a hymn!
With sweetest touches pierce your mistress' ear,
And draw her home with music.
I am never merry when I hear sweet music.
The reason is, your spirits are attentive -
The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not mov'd with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted.
- Music! hark!
It is your music of the house.
Methinks it sounds much sweeter than by day.
Silence bestows that virtue on it
How many things by season season'd are
To their right praise and true perfection!
Peace, ho! the moon sleeps with Endymion
And would not be awak'd. Soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.
William Shakespeare from Act V, Scene I of 'The Merchant of Venice'
PILGRIM'S JOURNEY- A Cantata
1. CAST THY BURDEN UPON THE LORD
Tenor and Baritone Soloists and Chorus
- Cast thy burden upon the Lord and he shall sustain thee,
Music in the house; music in the heart; music in heaven for joy that I am here.
Blessed is he whose sin is forgiven, whose transgression is covered.
He hath given me rest by his sorrow and life by his death.
An open door shall be set before thee and no man may shut it.
Come, thou blessed of the Lord, enter thou into the joy of the Lord.
Come hither, I will show thee excellent things.
A treasure of joy and gladness be given to thee.
I will lay me down in peace and take my rest, for it is thou, Lord, that makest me dwell in safety.
He that watcheth over thee shall neither slumber nor sleep.
Now shall thy peace be as a river and thy righteousness as the sea.
Thus are though sealed with the Holy Spirit,
This shall be a sign in thy head, a memorial between thine eyes to lighten thy countenance.
He hath set his mark upon thee, that thou may'st be known whither thou are yet to go.
Thou shalt come in with joy and peace, the mountains and hills shall break forth before thee with singing.
Teach me thy way, O Lord, Thou shalt show me the path of life.
I have set upon the door for thee.
Enter in, for thou art blessed.
The Lord give thee rest, so shalt thou dwell safely.
Thou shalt be secure because there is hope, yes, thou shalt rest in safety, thou shalt lie down and none shall make thee afraid. And in this place thou shalt find peace.
2. INTO THY HANDS, O LORD
- Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit. Except the Lord keep the house, the watchman waketh but in vain. The Lord hath poured out upon you the spirit of deep peace. The whole earth is at rest and is quiet ... I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. My help cometh even from the Lord, who hath made heaven and earth. He will not suffer thy foot to be moved; he that keepeth thee will not sleep. Behold, he that keepeth thee shall neither slumber nor sleep. The lord himself is thy keeper; he shall preserve thee from all evil; yea, it is even he that shall keep thy soul, from this time forth for evermore.
3. WHO WOULD TRUE VALOUR SEE
Soprano and Baritone Soloists and Chorus
- Who would true valour see
Let him come hither,
One here will constant be,
Come wind, come weather.
There's no discouragement
Shall make him once relent
His first avowed intent
To be a Pilgrim.
Whoso beset him round
With dismal stories.
Do but themselves confound,
His strength the more is.
No lion can him fight,
He'll with a giant fight.
But he will have a right
To be a Pilgrim.
- The night is far spent, the day is at hand. Cast off therefore the bonds of darkness and put on the whole armour of light.
- Put on him the whole armour of light that he may be able to stand in the evil day. The shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, the breastplate of righteousness, the sword of the spirit ..... God girdeth thee with strength of war and maketh thy way perfect. Yea, thou shalt smite thine enemies, they shall not be able to stand, but fall under thy feet.
- Blest be the Lord my strength that teacheth my hands to war and my fingers to fight. My hope and my fortress, my castle and my deliverer, my defence in whom I trust. I will not be afraid for the terror by night, nor for the arrow that flieth by day, For thou, Lord, art my hope. Thou hast set thine house of defence very high. (Be not afraid!) Go forward, Pilgrim, be valiant in fight! (Valiant in fight!) Put to flight the armies of evil. (Finish thy course!) He that overcometh shall inherit all things .....
- Hobgoblin nor foul fiend
Can daunt his spirit,
He knows he at the end
Shall life inherit.
Then fancies fly away,
He'll fear not what men say.
He'll labour night and day
To be a Pilgrim.
4. UNTO HIM THAT OVERCOMETH
- Unto him that overcometh shall be given of the Tree of Life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God ... On either side of the river groweth the Tree of Life, the leaves of the tree are for thy healing .... In the midst of that fair city flows the river of Water of Life clear as crystal .... Whoso will, let him take to the Water of Life freely. Whoso drinketh of this water shall never thirst. Take thou the leaves of the Tree of Life. So shalt thou enter in through the gates of the city.
5. VANITY FAIR
Tenor and Baritone Soloists and Chorus
- Buy! What will ye buy! Gold and silver! Wine and oil! Fine flour and wheat! Sheep and oxen! Horses and chariots! Purple and silk, fine linen and scarlet! And the souls of men! What will ye buy?
- Come and buy! Come and buy from our booths all the pleasures of man, come and buy. Nothing endures; so choose while you can, come and buy. What is value but money? What's life but estate? Who wanders lone leaves pleasure too late. Here is all that earth offers and all to be sold for the power and the glory are servants to gold. Come and buy!
- The world is all substance, Time nothing but days, Life's what you get for it, living what pays. Then spend while your money can buy what we sell - all things discovered since Adam first fell; they are spread for your choice; the new and the old have always been valued and paid for in gold.
- Buy! What will ye buy?
- Turn mine eyes lest they behold vanity.
- Vanity, vanity, all is vanity! All is Vanity Fair!
6. HE THAT IS DOWN
- He that is down need fear no fall,
He that is low no pride,
He that is humble ever shall
Have God to be his Guide.
I am content with what I have,
Little be it or much,
And, Lord, contentment still I crave
Because thou savest such.
Fullness to such a burden is,
That go on pilgrimage.
Here little, and hereafter bliss,
Is best from age to age.
7. THE LORD IS MY SHEPHERD
- The Lord is my shepherd; therefore can I lack nothing. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul; he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Soprano, Tenor and Baritone Soloists and Chorus
Blessed are they that dwell in thy house, they will always be praising thee.
Behold, my Salvation cometh, and my reward is with Him.
Blessing and glory, honour and power be unto him that sitteth upon the throne forever and ever.
Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord.
© Stephen Connock
Vice President - Ralph Vaughan Williams Society
Chairman - Albion Records