The Garden of Proserpine
In the Fen Country
Fen and Flood (Cantata arranged by Vaughan Williams)
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
Conducted by Paul Daniel
Jane Irwin (mezzo-soprano), Mary Bevan (soprano), Leigh Melrose (baritone),
Joyful Company of Singers (choir)
Ralph Vaughan Williams
The Garden of Proserpine
Vaughan Williams completed The Garden of Proserpine in 1899 and the work was begun in 1897 or 1898. For the twenty-something composer, it was a first attempt at a large-scale work, 489 bars long (at 24 minutes) for soprano soloist, chorus and full orchestra. Given that Vaughan Williams had only produced a handful of songs and some chamber pieces by this date, it is an impressive achievement that, in the closing pages, achieves that combination of radiance and nobility that is so characteristic of this composer in his later works. The Garden of Proserpine is taken from A.C. Swinburne's collection Poems and Ballads (1866), works notorious for their eroticism, republicanism and antitheism. For Vaughan Williams' generation the book remained a watchword for modernity and rebellious free-thinking. Vaughan Williams sets all twelve eight-line stanzas of the poem: its theme is an emotion of world-weariness and longing for the oblivion of death imagined as a sterile garden presided over by the figure of Proserpine, the goddess of death and eternal sleep. The weariness is partly expressed through the three-beat lines, as though the speaker has not the energy to say more. The poem's nihilism - That no life lives for ever / That dead men rise up never - a willing acceptance of the notion of death as the end to all human consciousness and endeavour, was shocking in 1866. The lyrical nature of Swinburne's verse tempted a number of composers to set his poetry to music. Vaughan Williams had memorably set the rondel Kissing her Hair in 1895 for baritone and piano (available on Albion Records ALBCD 002). Larger Swinburne settings were essayed by his teachers at the Royal College of Music. Parry set Eton - An Ode (1891) for chorus and orchestra and Stanford tackled East to West (1893) for mixed chorus and orchestra. Later, Bantock, Bax and Bainton would be inspired by Swinburne. Vaughan Williams' important setting is reminiscent of Parry, mixed, perhaps, with a less chromatic Delius.
The instrumental 47-bar Prologue, marked adagio, has several important motifs. Once the chorus enters on Here, where the world is quiet, Vaughan Williams varies the voices, giving the soprano several stanzas, solo. Stanza 3 is launched with the brief, bustling energy of an allegro illustrating wind and wave imagery. The climax is a quasi-liturgical chant on the note A, with which the choir sing almost the entire last stanza. With 'Only the sleep eternal', the melody moves off A and the music reaches the home key of F major. There is a reassuring warmth in these remarkable closing pages which is as moving as it is unexpected, given the poem's general mood of despair and bitterness. Vaughan Williams strengthens the element of consolation found in the poem, for even the weariest river winds somewhere safe to sea. Swinburne offers relief from the pain of existence in non-being but Vaughan Williams frames this end with a more optimistic vision, the aesthetic beauty of singing trumping that of verse.
© Rikky Rooksby, author of A.C. Swinburne: A Poet's Life (1997) and editor of the Swinburne volume in Lives of Victorian Literary Figures (2009)
Ralph Vaughan Williams
In the Fen Country
Vaughan Williams called In the Fen Country a 'Symphonic Impression for Orchestra'. The work was completed in April 1904 although revised several times after that, up to as late as 1935. It was first performed in 1909 by the Beecham Symphony Orchestra, under Thomas Beecham. Beecham, not remembered as a Vaughan Williams conductor, included this work in later concerts such as one in Berlin in 1912. Vaughan Williams had begun collecting folk songs in 1903 in Essex and Surrey. Although no folk songs are quoted directly, the melodic outlines and the spirit of folk music are prevalent in this work. The music develops from a simple statement of the folk-like melody to a more complex, impressionist idiom. Vaughan Williams shows his love of the bleak but alluring East Anglian countryside alongside a steady determination to create a national musical style. The lovely concluding bars, making use of an evocative solo viola, is an early example of his ability to capture a mood of mystery and gentle repose.
Fen and Flood
Patrick (Paddy) Hadley is, perhaps, best remembered today for a few carols and his impressive Symphonic Ballad The Trees so High (1934). This was based on the Somerset folk-song and is a large-scale and deeply-felt work which deserves repeated listening. Other choral works such as The Hills (1944) and Connemara (1958) show Hadley's topographical affinities, as does Fen and Flood (1955). Hadley lived almost all his life at Heacham on the North Norfolk coast. After the First World War (when he was severely injured leading to his right leg being amputated below the knee) he studied music at Cambridge, under Charles Wood and then at the Royal College of Music from 1922 to 1925 where he was a pupil of Vaughan Williams. He stayed in the academic world, being appointed Professor of Composition at the RCM (1925 to 1962) as well as taking on the demanding role of Professor of Music at Cambridge University (1946 to 1962). This followed a lectureship in music at Gonville and Caius College (1938 to 1946).
He was an unlikely Professor of Music in that he was determinedly antiintellectual, a maverick with an unconventional approach to teaching. His humour and mercurial personality generally won him the love and respect of his students and he counted amongst his friends many of the key figures of 20th century English music, including Walton, Bax, Lambert and Vaughan Williams. Fen and Flood was inspired by the devastating events of the night of Saturday 31 January, 1953. A combination of high spring-tides and a deadly hurricane force North-Westerly wind created a storm tide up to 18 feet above mean sea level. The surge hit Kings Lynn around 7.30 pm, reaching Canvey Island in Essex at 1.10 am on the Sunday morning, before continuing south to Belgium and Holland. Overall, 2,400 people lost their lives, 1,835 in The Netherlands and 307 on land in the UK. Little warning was given and many people died whilst still in bed. There were incredible examples of heroism as people died trying to save the lives of others. The North Norfolk coast was badly affected - 65 people died between Hunstanton and Kings Lynn alone, giving Hadley a direct emotional and physical involvement in the events of that dreadful night. Hadley collaborated on the text for Fen and Flood with his close friend Charles Cudworth (1908 - 1977), the musicologist, teacher and critic who was Librarian at the Cambridge University Music Faculty. They had worked together before on The Suffolk Lady, a 'Ballad of the Waveney', in 1947 and fully trusted each other's instincts. The joint project was underway by March 1954 and was first performed at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge on 12 June 1955 by reduced forces of baritone and soprano soloists, male chorus and a few instrumentalists including two pianists. Eric Wetherall, in his book on Patrick Hadley (Thames Publishing, 1997) quotes Brian Trowell, one of the pianists in the first performance, who wrote in The Caian in 1956: It was particularly fitting that the premiere should have taken place in Gonville and Caius; the College has strong ties with East Anglia and many Caius men, indeed, went out with the emergency teams who fought the very floods that Fen and Flood so tellingly portrays.
The Captain's Apprentice (arr. Vaughan Williams)
© Stephen Connock
Vice President - Ralph Vaughan Williams Society
Chairman - Albion Records