It could be reasonably claimed that Great Britain produced little in the way of truly great music during the 19th century compared with the talents of the rest of Europe, but towardms the end of the century all that was about to change. Ralph Vaughan Willias's early years coincided with a renaissance of English music led by Hubert Parry and (Dublin born) Charles Villiers Stanford and was finally given international recognition in the great works of Elgar, and continued by the likes of Holst, Tippett and Britten in the 20th century.
Vaughan Williams always had a great affection for the music of Parry and Stanford, and inevitably there was much discussion about the "English" style of composition Ė Vaughan Williams himself had a new lifelong interest in the British folk song and even in producing a new English Hymnal. After studying in Berlin with Max Bruch and in Paris with Maurice Ravel, he still felt his compositional technique was amateurish. His future, he felt, lay in the music of his own country, in its folk songs and in the wealth of music from the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods (roughly 1550 Ė 1620). The essential element of any good song, the lyric, was certainly not in short supply by the end of the century. The British Isles had managed to produce a wealth of lyrical poetry from such luminaries as Coleridge, Keats, Shelley and Wordsworth in the early part of the century and the likes of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Masefield during the latter half. Robert Louis Stevensonís poetry collection Songs of Travel were published soon after his death in 1894 and must have struck a chord in the mind of the young Vaughan Williams, who was certainly well acquainted with a similar theme running through Schubert's setting of Wilhem MŁllerís poetic cycle Die Winterreise.
In April, 1902 The Vocalist was published - a timely magazine which dealt with singing and which discussed and published new songs by up-and-coming composers. The first edition was notable for an article by Vaughan Williams entitled ĎA School of English Musicí, and the appearance of a new song, Linden Lea, written in 1901 in a single afternoon! This song, a setting of words by the Dorset dialect poet William Barnes was mistakenly subtitled "a Dorset folk song", and in early editions even had the dialect words included. It is probably the best known of any of Vaughan William's songs, and earned him more money than any other. A later edition of The Vocalist included Whither Must I Wander? which was written before the rest of Songs of Travel and first heard in a concert in London in November 1902. Silent Noon, which was detached from the rest of the Rossetti cycle The House of Life on which he was working, was given its first public performance on March 10th, 1903 at St James Hall, but had to be restarted because of the noise of the muffin-bell outside the hall!
Both these new song cycles were given their first complete performances at the Bechstein Hall on 2nd December 1904 during a concert promoted by Vaughan Williams himself and consisting of his own and Holst's music. The House of Life was sung by the contralto Edith Clegg, and the Songs of Travel by the baritone Walter Creighton, and both were accompanied by Hamilton Harty. The reviews were rather mixed, and even the publishers later refused to accept Songs of Travel as a whole, dividing the eight songs into two books, omitting Whither Must I Wander? altogether, until the complete cycle was published again by Boosey's in 1960 when the final song I Have Trod the Upward and the Downward Slope was also added after being discovered in the composer's papers after his death. The idea of setting a sequence of Rossetti sonnets occurred to the composer in 1900 after writing Silent Noon while staying in the Quantock Hills, but although this song was immediately popular, it was not until 1933 that it was reissued with the rest of The House of Life. The settings of these six sonnets seem more ambitious than much being written at this time. Some of the songs, especially Death in Love are almost orchestral in their writing, and even the tones of the harp and the hautboy in Love's Minstrels can be easily heard in the piano part.
Although it may seem that all these songs have little to do with Vaughan Williamsís later output, we must remember that never again was he to dedicate so much of this time to composing solo songs with piano accompaniment.
The name Fredegond Shove (1889 - 1949) may not be familiar today but she was certainly well connected in her own time, being the wife of the eminent economist Gerald Shove, and daughter of FW Maitland - the historian and biographer of Sir Leslie Stephen (father of Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf, to whom she was second cousin). She was, wrote Clive Bell, "the queerest mixture of intelligence and silliness and inexperience and wide acquaintances. (She) talks to me a great deal about the nature of love, and I broaden her mind with smutty and scandalous stories". The poems Vaughan Williams chose to set certainly reflect a rather naÔve nature, but whereas The Water Mill can be sung in the straightforward and innocent way it is obviously intended in reflecting a simple and honest country lifestyle, The First Ghost presents us with an element of Christian faith seemingly presented through the eyes of an innocent young bystander. Ursula Vaughan Williams said that her husband was never a professing Christian, but later drifted into a cheerful agnosticism. The First Ghost can be described as one of his "visionary" compositions, the effect caught by the beauty of a setting so simple and in an almost folk song style.
What is it about the songs of Vaughan Williams that, a nearly a century later, attracts me to them today? Indeed, what is it about all of his vocal music scored for the baritone voice, including the Sea Symphony, Hodie, Fantastia on Christmas Carols, Five Mystical Songs, Dona Nobis Pacem...the list seems endless...that has drawn generations of British singers to his music?
As a baritone, born in Wales - that "land of song" and trained at the Royal College of Music in London (where Vaughan Williams studied nearly a century earlier) - I found myself surrounded by opportunities to perform the music of this composer and his contemporaries such as Finzi, Butterworth, Delius and Parry. Perhaps it is because I am a baritone and not a tenor that I feel drawn to the composers of the first half of the 20th Century rather than towards Britten or Tippett, whose solo vocal compositions in the main were written for the tenor voice. Vaughan Williams's songs lie well for the lower voices - it was, after all, baritones and contraltos that gave the majority of the first performances of his songs. Even most tenors would agree that the tessitura of vocal lines he wrote are not appreciably higher than the normal baritone range - just with the addition of a few top notes! One of the earliest records I ever bought was of that fine English baritone John Shirley Quirk singing the Songs of Travel and nearly every baritone has recorded some of his songs (certainly the Songs of Travel) or performed them in recitals or for the BBC. Perhaps there is something about his writing that seems suited to the mezzo or baritone, in the same way that we may prefer to hear Brahms and Delius songs performed by the lower voices. In the end, it is probably Vaughan Williams's very "Britishness" (like Elgar) and his supreme skill at setting English words for the voice that makes him an outstanding example when we need to be reminded that we in this country could also produce master-craftsman in the art of song writing.
© Stephen Roberts