August 26, 2018 marks the 60th anniversary of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ death. To celebrate his life and work, let’s take a look at some of his lesser-known compositions including his Serenade to Music, Flos Campi, and Five Tudor Portraits. This post was written by WGUC intern, Connor Annable.
Did you know that Vaughan Williams wrote his Serenade to Musicfor sixteen of the most well-known British singers of his era? He wrote is as a tribute to English conductor Henry Wood, who at the time was celebrating the 50th anniversary of his conducting debut. Serenade to Music uses text from Act V of William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, which evokes the power of music and the music of the spheres.
Flos Campi was composed a little over 15 years before Serenade to Music. It is a work that is sometimes described as a celebration of love (Flos Campi is translated most often in the context of the Hebrew Bible as “Flower of the Field,” evoking the Rose of Sharon as described in the Song of Solomon). Premiered on October 10, 1925, it is cast in six interconnected sections, each using a Latin quote from the Song of Solomon. It is dedicated to the eminent English violist Lionel Tertis. This dedication seems fitting, since the viola has a prominent solo part against a backdrop of wordless chorus and small orchestra. As a result, it could be considered a choral-orchestral work, but the chorus and orchestra are not necessarily on equal footing.
A work that marks a complete contrast from pure Romanticism for Vaughan Williams is the ‘choral suite’ Five Tudor Portraits, composed in 1935 and premiered at the Norwich Festival on September 25, 1936. Scored for solo alto (or mezzo-soprano), baritone, chorus and orchestra, it sets five poems by the 15th-16th century poet John Skelton, who served as tutor to the young Henry VIII and poet laureate for Oxford and Cambridge Universities.
It is interesting to examine lesser-known music by Ralph Vaughan Williams in order to more fully appreciate him as a composer. He seems to maintain a feeling of immense pride for his home country by incorporating musical and textual sources which are unmistakably English. Because of this and other factors, Ralph Vaughan Williams may be regarded as an undisputed master of English choral-orchestral writing, writing which demands as much attention now as it did when these works premiered over 80-90 years ago.
Serenade to Music:
Toronto Symphony Orchestra/Peter Oundjian, conductor; Elmer Iseler Singers
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult, conductor; vocal soloists
EMI Classics 007777640253
Toronto Symphony Orchestra/Peter Oundjian, conductor; Teng Li, solo viola; Elmer Iseler Singers
Bournemouth Sinfonietta & Choir/Norman Del Mar, conductor; Frederick Rittle, viola
Five Tudor Portraits:
London Symphony Orchestra & Chorus/Richard Hickox, conductor; Jean Rigby, alto; John Shirley-Quirk, baritone