Vaughan Williams Studies, edited by Alain Frogley

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Vaughan Williams StudiesVaughan Williams Studies, edited by Alain Frogley. Cambridge University Press, 1996. 241 + xvii pp. ISBN 0 521 48031 0.

 

This collection of ten essays on the eminent English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) is but one of several scholarly monographs to appear on the composer and his music in recent years. Two other important volumes include the second edition of Michael Kennedy's A Catalogue of the Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams (Oxford University Press, 1996) and an entirely new version of James Day's Vaughan Williams in the Master Musician Series (Oxford University Press, 1998). These three works, along with a number of doctoral dissertations and a virtual plethora of new recordings, are indicative of a renewed interest and reevaluation of one of the most important musicians of the early twentieth century.

Looming large is the question as to why Vaughan Williams and his music are enjoying a renaissance a half-century after his death. The multi-faceted answer includes new theories on nationalism and cultural politics, new systems of musical analysis which reveal aspects of the music hitherto cloaked, and the perspective which is gained with the passing of time. These motifs and others pervade Vaughan Williams Studies and offer to the reader a broader and deeper understanding of Vaughan Williams, his musical output, his creative process, and his era.

Vaughan Williams is much more than the epitome of English pastoralism, as these essays so ably demonstrate. Although the pastoral element is significant in Vaughan Williams's work, it is not the only manifestation of his creative discourse. Furthermore, the underlying meanings of the pastoral in Vaughan Williams's music go far beyond the incorporation of folksong into concert music, as several of the essays prove.

Chapters in Vaughan Williams Studies include "Constructing Englishness in music: national character and the reception of Ralph Vaughan Williams" by Alain Frogley, who also edited the volume; "Coming of age: The earliest orchestral music of Ralph Vaughan Williams" by Michael Vaillancourt; "Vaughan Williams, Tallis, and the Phantasy principle" by Anthony Pople; "Vaughan Williams, Germany, and the German tradition: A view from the letters" by Hugh Cobbe; "Scripture, church, and culture: Biblical texts in the works of Ralph Vaughan Williams" by Byron Adams; "Vaughan Williams's folksong transcriptions: A case of idealization?" by Julian Onderdonk; "Vaughan Williams and British wartime cinema" by Jeffrey Richards; "Rhythm in the symphonies: A preliminary investigation" by Lionel Pike; "'Symphony in D major': Models and mutations" by Arnold Whittall; and "The place of the Eighth among Vaughan Williams's symphonies" by Oliver Neighbour. Scholars from both the United Kingdom and the United States contributed to the volume.

In the opening essay, Frogley raises important questions about nationalism, the promulgation of national identity, and how these factors influenced Vaughan Williams and his reception history. He places Vaughan Williams's career and reputation against the broader background of English national identity and shows that, through a variety of sociological factors, Vaughan Williams's image as a composer was grossly over-simplified and, as a result, many of his strikingly original works, such as A Pastoral Symphony, have had their meanings distorted. The chapter, as Frogley himself notes, asks nearly as many questions as it answers and provides a springboard for further inquiries into not only Vaughan Williams and his work but also early twentieth-century English musical life and its surrounding cultural politics.

The contributions of Michael Vaillancourt and Anthony Pople concern the development of Vaughan Williams's compositional style. Vaillancourt, in his article on the composer's early works, includes discussions on Vaughan Williams's writings about music from the turn of the century, the influence of his teachers at the Royal College of Music—Parry and Stanford—upon his musical development, and the evolution of his personal language through experimentation with various musical idioms. In his essay on the Phantasy principle, Anthony Pople focuses on the Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis as a case study of Vaughan Williams's treatment of the genre. Through sketch study and modern analytical techniques, Pople traces Vaughan Williams's compositional processes in the creation of one of his most famous works.

Hugh Cobbe, in his essay on Vaughan Williams's attitudes toward Germany and German music, analyzes letters and other writings by the composer. He traces the composer's views from his youth and his acknowledgment of the German tradition as the central force in European music, through a period when he acknowledged it to be one of several vital components in European music, to his maturity, when he saw German music, which arrived in England through a great influx of emigre composers, as something from which English music needed protection. In this way, the German style helped Vaughan Williams create his own English style by serving as the necessary "other."

Byron Adams, in his essay on Vaughan Williams's spirituality, asserts that the composer viewed the Bible as folklore, and that this interpretation allowed him to freely set Christian texts, while proclaiming himself to be an atheist. Adams discusses Vaughan Williams's aesthetic aims and realizations in the context of Biblical symbolism and allegory as a means to define an Englishness in his music.

Julian Onderdonk takes up the challenge of discussing Vaughan Williams's folksong transcriptions in the light of modern ethnomusicological theory. He argues on the side of Vaughan Williams in the assertion that his transcription methods were flawed and inaccurate. Onderdonk presents evidence as to why Vaughan Williams made two types of transcriptions, one which was more literal and one which was more "normative," and establishes complex reasons for this duality.

Vaughan Williams sought to document the dichotomy between "the communal ideal and the individual reality" (137) in folksong, and hence explicate the same for the wider rural society which the folksong either idealized or misrepresented.

Continuing the pervading thread of "What constitutes Englishness in music?", Jeffrey Richards asks this question in the context of music as propaganda in the wartime film scores of Vaughan Williams: 49th Parallel, Coastal Command, The Flemish Farm, The People's Land, and Stricken Peninsula. He integrates Vaughan Williams work for the cinema with his wider output, linking, for instance, the Sixth Symphony and Second String Quartet to his film music. In his film scores, Vaughan Williams used folksongs, hymns, marches, and dances to celebrate the English people. He utilized music as a means to reconcile his nationalist and socialist tendencies; this process is evident in his film scores, a genre which would reach a broad general audience.

Lionel Pike and Arnold Whittall offer detailed contributions which investigate technical aspects of Vaughan Williams's craft in his mature works. Pike explores the composer's use of rhythm and meter in the Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Symphonies. Pike discusses overlapping phrase lengths, the juxtaposition of duple and triple elements, and the utilization of stressed and unstressed beats in the creation of musical gestures. Whittall, in his article on the Fifth Symphony, delves into the multitudinous ambiguities of the work. He discusses the metaphysical connections with the symphony, the tonal ambiguity inherent in the "Preludio," hermeneutic relationships between the work's four movements, and the ongoing question of the synthesis between meaning and structure.

Oliver Neighbour's essay on the Eighth Symphony concludes the volume. He places the work within the context of Vaughan Williams's symphonic ouvre, demonstrating how this penultimate symphony differs substantially from its eight siblings. Its distance and its closeness of relation both stem from the human, as opposed to spiritual, focus of the work. The collection as a whole presents a wide range of complementary essays on many aspects of Vaughan Williams's career. Although opera, chamber music, and vocal music do not receive as much attention as do other genres (almost certainly due to space limitations), they nonetheless are mentioned in the context of other themes. The lack of chapters on these topics only proves the need for further research on Vaughan Williams. Vaughan Williams Studies, as a model for such endeavors, is a valuable and important addition to the recent literature on British music. Vaughan Williams Studies not only offers deeper insights into the music of a single composer but also provides a broader framework for the understanding of English musical life during the first half of the twentieth century.

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Last modified on Thursday, 18/10/2018

William Everett

William Everett is Professor of Musicology and Associate Dean for Graduate Studies and Curriculum at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music and Dance. He is the author of Sigmund Romberg (Yale UP, 2007), Rudolf Friml (Illinois, 2008), contributing co-editor of The Cambridge Companion to the Musical (2002; 2nd ed., 2008), and a contributing editor for musical theater for the Grove Dictionary of American Music, 2nd ed. His research specialties include American musical theater, particularly operettas of the early twentieth century, and the relationship between music and national identity.

Everett was reviews editor for College Music Symposium from 2000 to 2006, and is currently a member of the editorial board for Studies in Musical Theatre and the editorial advisory board for Palgrave Studies in British Musical Theatre. He served as Program Chair for CMS’s 2009 International Conference in Croatia and was the Society’s national vice-president from 2011 to 2013. He currently chairs CMS’s International Initiatives Committee.

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