Symphony No 6 in E minor
The Wasps Overture
Prelude: The Forgotten Rite
Symphonic Rhapsody: Mai-Dun
Symphony No 6 in E minor
Vaughan Williams valued the opinions of close friends on his new works, even if he did not always follow the advice given. In the early years, it was to his first wife Adeline as well as to fellowcomposers George Butterworth and Gustav Holst that he would turn. Later, the circle of advisers widened, to include Sir Arthur Bliss, Gerald Finzi and Herbert Howells, the conductors Sir John Barbirolli, Sir Adrian Boult and Sir Malcolm Sargent and musical friends such as R.O. Morris, Steuart Wilson, Ruth Dyson and Roy Douglas. These and many others were invited to a 'play-through' of Vaughan Williams' new work. Such first hearings were arranged for piano, or two pianos, and central to many of these performances in the 1940s and 1950s was Michael Mullinar (1895 - 1973). Mullinar was an expert accompanist, teacher and composer who would on occasion venture into solo repertoire – he gave the first performance of Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on the 'Old 104th' Psalm Tune in September, 1950. He had, by all accounts, remarkable score-reading ability. When he played these new Vaughan Williams works, the composer was always trying to work out 'will the tune come through?'
So it was that in July, 1946 at the composer's home in Dorking, Michael Mullinar played the Sixth Symphony to groups of close friends. At White Gates, he played it twice, then when all the guests had left played it again for the composer, Adeline and Ursula Wood (later to become Vaughan Williams second wife). Ursula would write of Michael Mullinar's playing: He had an uncanny power of being able to suggest Ralph's orchestration and each of the many times he played the work it had been with unflagging excitement and inspiration. Because of that day, Ralph dedicated the symphony to him. At the Royal College of Music in June, 1947 he played the symphony no fewer than four times in a day - an amazing feat!
Vaughan Williams sketches for the Sixth Symphony and Michael Mullinar's two-piano arrangement with various interpolations by the composer, can be found in the British Library. Alan Rowlands edited the two-piano arrangement for this recording making use of the final orchestral published version to fill in any gaps. Thus we can hear for the first time what a 'play-through' actually sounded like. Alan Rowlands describes on page seven the editing process. What is clear is that the two-piano arrangement brings remarkable clarity and power to the symphony. The tempestuous opening generates considerable excitement and the percussive, insistent motif of the second movement seems, surprisingly perhaps, even more ominous here than in the orchestral version. The Scherzo, too, has a clarity that can be lost in the virtuoso orchestration and the extraordinary final movement remains eerie, remote and searching in this arrangement. The continuing influence of Ravel is felt more keenly here. Of course, this two-piano score can never replace the final version. Yet the sense of hearing elements of this work as if for the first time is strong in the two-piano arrangement, leading to a fuller appreciation of Vaughan Williams' masterpiece.
At its first performance on April 21st, 1948, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Adrian Boult, the symphony made an immediate and profound impression. The final Epilogue invoked most comments with one commentator saying it was 'like nothing else in music – a wholly pianissimo movement like a long farewell'. Deryck Cooke was at the first performance and wrote of the 'ultimate nihilism' of the last movement – 'every drop of blood seemed frozen in one's veins'. The symphony was composed between 1944 and 1947 and this has prompted many commentators to hear in the power, vehemence and ultimate desolation of this music, Vaughan Williams response to the atrocities of World War II and the use of the atomic bomb in 1945 in Japan. Vaughan Williams would have none of these 'War Symphony' associations, retorting 'I suppose it never occurs to those people that a man might just want to write a piece of music'. Vaughan Williams did, however, provide clues to the inspiration behind the original and disturbing last movement. He told Michael Kennedy in January, 1956 that the nearest we can get in words to the substance of this music is Prospero's speech in Act IV of Shakespeare's The Tempest – 'We are such stuff as dreams are made of and our little life is rounded in a sleep'. The fourth movement does indeed dissolve into thin air, far removed from the spiritual certainties of the Fifth Symphony. Vaughan Williams also acknowledged that two themes conceived for the 1943 wartime film Flemish Farm, but not actually used, were the origins of the themes opening the second and fourth movements. As always with Vaughan Williams, the inspiration for his music was complex and absorbed over many years.
The first movement Allegro begins in a frenzied manner; it is bold and invigorating, calling to mind the opening of the composer's Fourth Symphony. A jazzy 12/8 rhythm opens the next section and just when we might believe these syncopated rhythms will continue to the end of the movement, Vaughan Williams introduces a passage of remarkable warmth and beauty – one of the great moments in all Vaughan Williams that never fails to move the listener. Alas, it does not last and the combative music returns.
The second movement introduces a three-note figure which dominates the movement – 'hammering away' as the composer put it for over forty bars, getting louder and louder. It is threatening, menacing music that is reminiscent of Holst's Mars from The Planets, written over 30 years earlier. A doleful melody provides little consolation and the war-like figure returns leading to a terrific climax before a lonely refrain closes the movement. The Scherzo follows without a break and unleashes more furies. The level of activity is astonishing with a jazzy tune (memorably on saxophone in the orchestral version) introducing some focus for all his activity. The music continues its frantic pace, with increasing venom, until the link to the fourth movement is reached.
The final Epilogue is in great contrast to what has gone before. It is cold, featureless music. As Vaughan Williams put it, the music 'drifts about' contrapuntally. Our revels have indeed all ended and all that we inherit shall dissolve. Vaughan Williams, with considerable courage and independent mindedness, peers into the abyss and seems to find only emptiness.
John Ireland (1879 – 1962)
John Ireland was an accomplished pianist whose piano compositions – over 50 in total – contain many of his most individual and expressive works. It is therefore not surprising that he arranged two of his most substantial orchestral works – The Forgotten Rite (1913) and Mai-Dun (1920-21) for piano, four hands. These demonstrate many of the qualities that distinguish his original music for piano – poetic, concentrated and fastidious – and have complete sincerity and fidelity to the spirit of the orchestral works from which they are arranged.
Prelude: The Forgotten Rite
Ireland conceived The Forgotten Rite at Le Fauvia in Jersey. He was fascinated by what he regarded as this hauntingly beautiful island and the pagan history of Jersey exerted a profound influence on him. He said he felt the presence of 'old, unhappy, far-off things'. The tender, expressive opening – marked poco lento e mistico – conjures up this remote and forgotten past. The ensuing broadly lyrical melody shows the poetry and strength of Ireland's musical imagination. The work can also be considered, as Fiona Richards suggests, as an evocation of the god Pan and the five-note flute motif that appears soon after the mysterious opening chords is an undoubted representation of pan-pipes. This figure in different forms is used throughout the piece, which ends with the celesta slowly picking out the same notes after the quiet final chord. This ending is a distant evocation of those 'silent hills'.
Symphonic Rhapsody: Mai-Dun
In Mai-Dun Ireland is clearly moved by another ancient presence – this time those remarkable earthworks near Dorchester called Maiden Castle. If it was Thomas Hardy who called this site Mai-Dun, John Ireland was influenced by Arthur Machen's Hill of Dreams (1907) with its description of an evil aura clinging to the ancient battlefield. The music evokes the battle in AD 43 as the advancing Romans close in on the remaining Britons clinging on in the castle. The battle cries – allegro energico – give way to a more subdued passage recalling, perhaps, the fate of the Britons. The triple forte coda returns to the brutality of the war music in passages of remarkable power and ruggedness.
Ralph Vaughan Williams
Overture The Wasps
In 1909, Vaughan Williams had written the incidental music for a Cambridge production of Aristophanes' The Wasps. The play concerns the goings-on of a group of Athenian lawyers and the Wasps of the title are the juryman with their sarcastic and sometimes caustic focus on the details of litigation. Vaughan Williams' music features the male chorus as well as solo and speaking parts and from this lengthy work he arranged a Suite in Five Movements of which the well-loved Overture is the opening movement. It is an allegro vivace that begins with the buzzing around of the jurymen. The central passage of the Overture is a gorgeous, heart-warming melody that returns in the closing sections in counterpoint. This sensitive and expertly arranged version for piano, four hands, was undertaken by Constant Lambert (1905 – 1951). Lambert had won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in 1922, at the age of just 17, where he was taught by Vaughan Williams and by R.O. Morris. Lambert impressed Vaughan Williams and it seems likely that this piano arrangement originated during this period of study. Lambert's already wide interests were to develop further in the mid-1920s with the Li Po settings (1926) and the Piano Sonata (1930) showing an original, versatile and distinctive musical personality. Whilst Lambert disliked the folk-inspired English school of music of the 20th century, which he referred to as 'fabricated, artificial and sterile', his attitude to Vaughan Williams was more ambivalent. He conducted the first stage performance of Job in 1931 with his own reduced orchestration. His conducting of Vaughan Williams was not limited to his role at Sadler's Wells – he was conducting VW in Naples in 1944 which was memorable for being affected by blackouts. His moving Aubade Héroïque is clearly influenced by Vaughan Williams (without hint of pastiche) and is indeed dedicated to him.
© Stephen Connock
Vice President - Ralph Vaughan Williams Society
Chairman and Executive Producer - Albion Records