I did not realize, until late in the day yesterday, that it was the 150th anniversary of the birth of British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. I’m going to have do some feature work on him in the coming months, I think. I’ve loved Vaughan Williams ever since I first encountered him via his “English Folk Song Suite”, a perennial favorite for concert band, while I was in high school. Vaughan Williams’s work has always fascinated me, representing a different kind of nationalistic post-Romanticism, not exactly modernist in its approach, but definitely a rejection of (or maybe a reaction to? Correction of?) the dominance in Europe of the German symphonic traditions.
Vaughan Williams looked inward for his influences, both to English folk song (a common approach of many English composers of his day) and to early English music, specifically that of the Tudor era. His Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis is probably his most famous such work. Vaughan Williams also had other fascinations, too: the poems of Walt Whitman seem to have spoken to him, as he set several of them in prominent works and in some of his art songs.
One such poem by Whitman, “Darest Thou Now O Soul”, has a pretty clear subject, as it appeared in a section of Leaves of Grass called “Whispers of Heavenly Death”. Here is the text:
DAREST thou now O soul,Walk out with me toward the unknown region,Where neither ground is for the feet nor any path to follow?
No map there, nor guide,Nor voice sounding, nor touch of human hand,Nor face with blooming flesh, nor lips, nor eyes, are in that land.I know it not O soul,Nor dost thou, all is a blank before us,All waits undream’d of in that region, that inaccessible land.Till when the ties loosen,All but the ties eternal, Time and Space,Nor darkness, gravitation, sense, nor any bounds bounding us.Then we burst forth, we float,In Time and Space O soul, prepared for them,Equal, equipt at last, (O joy! O fruit of all!) them to fulfil O
Vaughan Williams would set this poem in to a deeply moving, beautiful and compelling work for chorus and orchestra, which he called “Toward the Unknown Region”. Shades of Shakespeare’s “undiscovered country”. This is as good an entry point in Vaughan Williams and his uniquely English twentieth-century sound world that I know.
More Vaughan Williams to come, I think. I won’t pledge a weekly exploration, but…we’ll come back to RVW a bit over the next few months, I think.
I was probably in my thirties before I knew the correct pronunciation of his first name.