Ralph Vaughan Williams: A Master of Orchestration Turns 150

Ralph Vaughan Williams: A Master of Orchestration Turns 150

Written by Anne E. Johnson

On October 12, 2022, fans of 20th-century British music will have something to celebrate: the 150th birthday of Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872 – 1958). Stretching back to the Middle Ages, Britain has always contributed a distinctive richness to musical harmony and arrangement; Vaughan Williams took that mantle and wore it proudly. Few composers of any time or place have had a better handle on how to use an orchestra for powerful emotional effect. Several recent recordings demonstrate the birthday boy’s particular gifts.

One of the moving forces behind a couple of these projects is the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society, which is determined to keep its namesake remembered and relevant by sponsoring recordings of Vaughan Williams’ lesser-known works. They found ideal voices for that goal in the Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, distinctive not only for its excellent singing, but also because it is a smaller choir than one usually hears singing this composer’s music. The group, under the direction of William Vann, is accompanied by organist Joshua Ryan on Earth’s Wide Bounds, an Albion Records release.

The album features two Vaughan Williams world premieres. The composer wrote an arrangement of his own Mass in G minor specifically for Anglican worship, calling it the Communion Service in G minor. And then there is the trilogy of Walt Whitman poems, set as Vaughan Williams’ Three Nocturnes, discovered just over 20 years ago. This recording includes the second nocturne, “By the Bivouac’s Fitful Flame,” haunting, achingly dissonant, and full of the quiet fear of wartime between battles.

But the Communion Service takes up the bulk of this album. The seven-movement work opens with a reading (by Rowen Williams) interspersed with choral verses. The remaining movements use the text of the Ordinary of the Mass in the Anglican sequence (the Gloria is delayed as compared with the Catholic Mass). Vaughan Williams has the touch of a Renaissance sculptor who takes a huge, rough slab of marble and magically draws from it profound emotional nuance and detail. The Chapel Choir singers, with Vann crafting patient and expressive phrasing, provide an intimate sound with exacting intonation and dynamic control that’s essential to the composer’s use of dissonance.


Although Vaughan Williams’ choral writing is a source of great British pride, he also devoted much of his career to composing for solo voice. Songs of Travel is a nine-part song cycle included on the new album Songs of Travel and Home by baritone Julien Van Mellaerts with pianist James Baillieu. This Champs Hill Records release also includes the fascinating Ornithological Anecdotes by New Zealander Gareth Farr as well as works by Frank Bridge, Maurice Ravel, and others.

Like most of the best art-song specialists, Van Mellaerts has a theatrical style and exceptionally clear diction. In other words, he’s a good storyteller. Thus, he’s perfect for Songs of Travel, much of which has a folk-like character, as you can hear in its first song, “The Vagabond,” which gives more than a little nod to Schubert.


The texts of these songs are taken from Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1896 poetry collection Songs of Travel and Other Verses, in which a narrator muses on places he’s been. Appropriately, the song cycle touches on a number of styles. “In Dreams,” for example, takes sorrowful, late-Romantic tone. The doubling of the voice in the piano right hand lends a hollow loneliness to the timbre despite the atmosphere of bustling, swelling chords.


If you like Benjamin Britten but are not familiar with Vaughan Williams beyond his most famous sentimental orchestral works like the Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, I urge you to get to know this clear predecessor to Britten’s solo vocal writing. Vaughan Williams’ relationship with the English folk song tradition was an important influence on the younger composer.

Happily, there’s easy access to this segment of Vaughan Williams’ output, in the form of a 4-volume (so far) set of English folk song arrangements featuring baritone Roderick Williams, soprano Mary Bevan, and tenor Nicky Spence. Not surprisingly, all these singers have performed a lot of Britten in their careers as well. William Vann on piano is the same man who conducted the Earth’s Wide Bounds album mentioned above, and that’s no coincidence. Both recordings are on Albion Records as part of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society’s efforts to capture and disseminate as much of the composer’s music as possible.

Like Britten in the next generation, Vaughan Williams took advantage of the burgeoning of folksong scholarship going on in England and Scotland in the 19th century, especially that of song collector Cecil Sharpe. Sharpe published notation of his field recordings, inspiring many musicians to try out this rich repertoire and make it their own. Vaughan Williams clearly cherishes the beauty of the traditional melody lines while finding ways to enhance them through the classical idiom. As can be heard in Roderick Williams’ stately singing of “Bold General Wolfe,” that interpretation was embodied in both the harmony and the rhythm of the accompaniment.


Vaughan Williams’ interest also stretched to the traditional songs of Newfoundland. A collection of 15 such songs is preserved in Volume 4 of the Albion Folk Songs set. Sung with fluidity and sadness by Mary Bevan, “Sweet William’s Ghost” demonstrates both the British (specifically Scottish in this case) influence on Newfoundland’s music and the understatement Vaughan Williams could employ when he didn’t want to get in the way of great material.


Nicky Spence has earned a reputation as a Vaughan Williams expert. He is also featured on a new album from Hypérion, Vaughan Williams: On Wenlock Edge, Four Hymns, The House of Life. Be warned that you can currently only listen by downloading the tracks or getting the CD; there are no streaming options, not even on the hi-res sites. But it’s worth the effort to get your hands on this album. The three song cycles mentioned in the title are some of Vaughan Williams’ most beautiful and poignant, and the performance by Nicky Spence, pianist Julius Drake, and the Piatti Quartet are superb.

Drake, perhaps the best pianist these days for accompanying vocalists in 20th-century British music, doesn’t so much support as collaborate. His fleet, ever-moving lines intertwine with Spence’s, giving the melody texture and shape, as in the crystalline Four Hymns, which adds a viola obbligato (Timothy Ridout). But the true gem of the album is On Wenlock Edge, for tenor, piano, and string quartet. Spence’s voice is clear and thrilling, and the orchestration brings the poems by A.E. Houseman to Technicolor life.


Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/public domain.

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