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Allen C. Guelzo

A Vaughan Williams Elegy

"Cheerful agnosticism"?

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Vaughan Williams has long had the reputation of being a late bloomer, and it is not undeserved. The catalyst that propelled him to fame was the modest invitation of Percy Dearmer in 1904 to join the editorial staff of Dearmer's new project, The English Hymnal. Vaughan Williams' work on the Hymnal not only plunged him into the long history of English church music—from Tallis and Byrd to the Victorians—but into English folk-song and the use of modes as an alternative to keys.[1] Modes are, in the simplest form, scales played only with the white keys (the 'Phrygian' mode, for instance, begins on e and proceeds up along f-g-a-b-c-d-e, rather than e-f#-g#-a-b-c#-d#). Modality intrigued Vaughan Williams as both fresh and naturally 'English,' and it put him on the track not only of Tudor polyphony but also of folk-song collection.

The giant strides of the Industrial Revolution had, as Thomas Hardy's novels bleakly illustrated, emptied the English countryside of much of its traditional rural population and the folk culture that went with them. The Pre-Raphaelites and William Morris's Arts-and-Crafts movement struggled to preserve the dying embers of folk culture, and they had their counterpart in Cecil Sharp and the folk-song revival. Not that the folk-song collectors were necessarily applauded for their efforts. One critic sniffed in 1909 that folk-song was useless for modern music because "it is not comprehensive enough"; another scorned folk-song as a plunge into "the primitive." And it is true that the folk-song enthusiasts were all-too-often little more than wealthy aesthetes doing cultural penance, a profile Vaughan Williams certainly fit. But as he fanned out over the Norfolk and Surrey countryside, music paper and gramophone horn in tow, he discovered what amounted to an entirely new musical language. Nor was it always produced by singers like "Mr. Pottiphar," who first sang for him "Through Bushes and Through Briars." He told one inquirer that he "once heard a Gaelic preacher" who "when he got excited … recited on a fixed succession notes" (it was a sequence of g-a-g-f-g-d), and in 1914 Vaughan Williams made that sequence one of the principal themes in A London Symphony.[2]

These discoveries would produce both the trite—his simple Norfolk Rhapsody of 1906—and the profound, the latter emerging in his gorgeous Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis in 1910. The Tallis Fantasia—which gets surprisingly short shrift in Alldritt's telling—is based on a Phrygian psalm tune written by Tallis for Archbishop Matthew Parker's metrical psalter in 1567. Not only the Tallis theme but Vaughan Williams' counter-themes and harmony were modeled on the e-f and b-c intervals typical of the Phrygian mode. It was the aural equivalent of the resurrection of Lazarus, and has sounded like it ever since.

This did not free Vaughan Williams entirely from the gooey late Romanticism he had learned from Parry and Stanford. He would slog on, writing public-festival music like Toward the Unknown Region (1907) and A Sea Symphony (1910). It was not until his violin rhapsody The Lark Ascending (in 1920) and his third symphony, the 'Pastoral Symphony,' in 1922, that Vaughan Williams gave himself over completely to the new tongue of modality—parallel triads and chords in the 'Pastoral,' a first movement cast in Mixolydian, the use of a natural trumpet in the second. But by that time, a good deal else in Vaughan Williams' life had changed as well.

It is difficult to disentangle Vaughan Williams' life from his music, for the simple reason that he lived so long (he was eighty-five when he died in his sleep in 1958) and wrote so much, so persistently, and in so many different musical genres: nine symphonies, four operas, two concertos, string quartets, reams of choral music, ballet, and even film scores. Roughly, one can periodize Vaughan Williams' writing into four stages, from 1898 to 1914 (when he was shuffling slowly through late Romanticism of the Brahms and Elgar variety), from 1920 to 1934 (which includes the 'Pastoral,' the folk opera Hugh the Drover, and Job, the Tudor-like 'masque for dancing'), a brief but substantial dalliance with a rambunctious modernism from 1934 to 1944 (in the manner of Hindemith and Kodaly), and finally a return to serenity in the works that begin with the 5th Symphony and include The Pilgrim's Progress (1951) and Hodie (1953). In 1951, Winston Churchill would hail him "our greatest English composer, and great musical ambassador."

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