Thursday, 2 June 2011

The genius of Vaughan Williams

Apologies if it seems this is a heavy music week, though to be fair my earlier post was only using music to get to catchphrases. We've seen heavy defenses of Parry as an English composer recently - I think Ralph Vaughan Williams should get more recognition.

But, you say, this is the man who wrote the Classic FM listeners' favourite piece, The Lark Ascending. True. But Vaughan Williams has tended to be sneered at by the serious music mafia. After all, the man was a 20th century composer who liked tunes! Terrible.

I think part of the problem with appreciating RVW is that some of his big orchestral pieces verged on the mediocre - his true genius was in small music. Yet this isn't the kind of stuff that sniffy musical bigwigs bother with. I admit I'm biassed. I live all of five miles down the road from Down Ampney where Vaughan Williams was born. But the bias mostly comes from having sung some of his music that is wonderful.

The particular piece I love most is called Bushes and Briars. It's based on a folk song (which is another thing the musical great and good have against him. Folk songs are for silly people with beards), and it's a lovely tune, but what makes the piece is RVW's exquisite harmonies.

I have an absolutely rubbish recording for you to listen to (you'll probably have to turn your volume up). It's of my old college chapel choir (including me), and it was recorded over 35 years ago by the high-tech means of sticking a portable cassette recorder at the back of the concert hall. So the sound quality is awful. But I hope you will get a slight feel for the wonder of those harmonies.

Image from Wikipedia


  1. Truly beautiful! The recording sounded pretty fine on my computer too. I agree you learn to really love his music if you sing it - we sang his arrangement (not sure if that's the right word) of Shakespeare's Serenade to Music. That is a heavenly combination. First part here:

  2. Thanks, Clare. I hadn't come across the Serenade to Music piece - lovely.

  3. I'm rather fond of the Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis.

  4. I'm more than fond of it - it's bloody brilliant. Again, it's relatively small stuff. The 'theme' is just a hymn tune (one Tallis wrote under orders from Elizabeth I as there wasn't much music congregations could sing). Yet he works wonders with it.