Ralph Vaughan Williams (October 12, 1872 – August 26, 1958) is a model of duality: a perfect synthesis of the old and the new, of tradition and innovation, of light and dark. His neo-nationalist style of composition is distinctly and uniquely Vaughan Williamsian, and yet resonates deeply as a symbol of English. Its innovative blend of musical modernism is rooted in the past, drawing heavily on the traditions of English choral music and imbued with the rustic tones of folk music. With a life and career woven between two world wars, his music can be as festive and joyous as it is dark and tumultuous. Scroll down to experience the sublime sound world of Britain’s best composer with our selection of the best works by Vaughan Williams.
Best Works of Vaughan Williams: 10 Essential Pieces
ten: In the Land of the Fens (1907)
One of the first compositions by Vaughan Williams, In the Land of the Fens is a beautiful evocative orchestral symphonic poem, painting the dark landscape of a dense swamp. Although this is one of his earliest works, the beginnings of his unique compositional style are already evident. The score effortlessly portrays wild open spaces in vivid colors and atmospheric orchestration, reminiscent of French Impressionism. By 1907 Vaughan Williams had been collecting folk songs for several years; the importance of this work is already evident in Swamp country, with touches of modality and shimmering allusions to folk tunes.
9: Dark pastoral (orch. David Matthews, 2010)
This beautiful piece for orchestra and cello is based on a fragment by Vaughan Williams’ Concerto for cello (1942). The original concerto was never completely completed, and it is thanks to David Matthews, in collaboration with the RVW Foundation, that we can experience this wonderful and elegiac work as a piece in its own right. In 2010 Dark pastoral premiered at BBC proms in London, performed by Steven Isserlis, and is now part of Vaughan Williams’ catalog.
8: Fantasy on a theme by Thomas Tallis (1910)
Vaughan Williams was a master of reincarnation and often drew inspiration from the distant past to exert creative influence. Tallis was a 16th century English composer and the theme of Vaughan Williams’ Fancy was originally written for a setting to music of a psalm, originally composed in 1567. Vaughan Williams ingeniously reinvents this theme as a piece for string orchestra, while preserving its intrinsic Renaissance qualities. This fine balance between old and new not only results in one of Vaughan Williams’ best works, but truly demonstrates his compositional genius.
7: The pilgrim’s progression (1951)
The pilgrim’s progression represents another dichotomy in Vaughan Williams: a self-proclaimed atheist with a deep and constant interest in Christianity and sacred spirituality. Indeed, he called this work “morality” rather than opera: the libretto combines a complex and convincing score with the eponymous 1678 allegory of John Bunyan, with excerpts from the Bible and with verses written by the artist. Vaughan William’s wife, Ursula. Since the mixed reception of its premiere in 1951, The pilgrim’s progression divided opinions. However, more recent performances have attempted to rehabilitate and modernize the production, earning its place as a masterpiece of 20th century opera.
6: English folk song suite (1924)
Vaughan Williams’ love of folk music permeates every corner of his repertoire; specifically, English folk song suite, one of his best works, is a celebration of folk heritage including songs such as Seventeen come Sunday, My Bonny Boy and Somerset folk songs. This charming suite was composed for a military orchestra, but is widely performed today in its fully orchestrated form. Reincarnated folk songs dance to this score, alive with the heart and soul that characterizes Vaughan Williams’ work so much.
5: Symphony n Â° 1 “Symphony of the Sea” (1910)
Ralph Vaughan William’s nine symphonies are all, in their own way, remarkable pieces in a prolific portfolio. The first symphony is a thick and lustrous score, filled with the lavish, folkloric Vaughan Williams idiom we know and love, but on an immense scale. The vast performing forces include a full orchestra and mass choir with individual soloists. Written after the composer studied orchestration in Paris with Fraying, the “Sea Symphony” is beautifully orchestrated to mimic the pure power of the ocean, with a mass of swirling and swelling strings, epic brass and dramatic percussion. The choir opens the first movement in spectacular fashion, exclaiming: âHere is the sea! ”
4: Five mystical songs (1911)
Vaughan Williams’ vocal works are always particularly special. Five mystical songs for baritone, choir and orchestra, are based on sacred poems by George Herbert. Each song has its own character and sentiment: “Easter” is cheerful and exultant, “I Got Me Flowers” has a smoother and more ethereal quality, while the final movements “The Call” and “Antiphon” have more of a hymnal and festive character. feel for them. Simply captivating.
3: Fantasy on ‘Greensleeves’ (1928)
Once again, the historical clashes with the contemporary in Vaughan William’s astonishing adaptation of the famous song “Greensleeves”. Originally written for opera Sir John in love, but now performed as a full-fledged concert piece, Vaughan Williams revives the style of Tudor polyphony he so revered alongside the folk tunes âGreensleevesâ and âLovely Joanâ, wrapped in his scintillating and vibrant musical style. There is a peaceful and serene quality to this score, but it is imbued with a strong and patriotic spirit.
2: Five variations of ‘Dives and Lazarus’ (1938)
An exquisite and poignant staging of the folk tune ‘Dives and Lazarus’. The ample lyricism rises and falls gently with sensitive touches of modality and soft clashes of distant tones, transforming into a possible outpouring of unrestrained and limitless emotion. Dives and Lazare, one of Vaughan Williams’ best works, was performed at the composer’s own funeral in 1958 as a tribute to his love of folk song; it makes such a glorious play even more poignant.
1: The lark that goes up (1914)
Will a piece of music, once again, come close to capturing the heart of an entire nation like The lark that goes up? Vaughan Williams’ “Pastoral Romance” for solo violin and orchestra was voted best piece of music by Classic FM‘s Hall of Fame, the world’s largest poll of classical music tastes, for a record eleventh time in 2021 – with its idyllic and serene pastoral quality, melodious violin solo and traces of rustic modality, it is easy to understand why. Even if The ascending lark was written before World War I, the first was postponed to 1921. At that time, The ascending lark had become more than an exquisite piece of neo-nationalist music: it offered a window into pre-war Britain. Perhaps that is why it resonated, and continues to resonate, with postwar audiences. As Vaughan Williams put it so well: “The art of music is above all the expression of the soul of the nation”.
Our recommended recording of Vaughan Williams The lark that goes up performed by Nicola Benedetti, featured on her album Vaughan Williams and Tavener, can be purchased here.
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