Serenade to Music How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank! [13'34]
Elizabeth Connell (soprano), Amanda Roocroft (soprano), John Mark Ainsley (tenor), Martyn Hill (tenor), Maldwyn Davies (tenor), Anne Dawson (soprano), Linda Kitchen (soprano), Alan Opie (baritone), Gwynne Howell (bass), Sir Thomas Allen (baritone), Sarah Walker (mezzo-soprano), Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo-soprano), John Connell (bass)
The Serenade to Music was a unique response to an extraordinary event. As stated on the score, it was ‘composed for and dedicated to Sir Henry J Wood on the occasion of his jubilee, in recognition of his services to music, by R Vaughan Williams’. This was in 1938, and the ‘jubilee’ concert, marking Wood’s fifty years of activity as a professional conductor, took place at the Royal Albert Hall on 5 October. It was the type of gala event which today would gladden the hearts of Messrs Gubbay or Hochhauser. Taking part were contingents of the three London orchestras (BBCSO, LSO, LPO), three choral societies, Rachmaninov (an old friend of Wood, of whom a little more anon), and no fewer than sixteen internationally acclaimed solo singers, male and female. The reason for their presence was precisely what made the Serenade to Music unique—it was written for these singers, made-to-measure to the point whereby they are actually identified in the score by their initials. There is nothing else in music quite like it. All are given solo passages, however brief, and the climactic moments when they join together—‘Such harmony is in immortal souls’ and ‘And draw her home with music’—are overwhelming. Most of the original singers are dim-remembered names today, with the exception of Dame Eva Turner—for whom the great soaring solo ‘How many things by season season’d are to their right praise and true perfection!’ was specially designed. The effect of the piece is much diluted when performed by a chorus, or even by sixteen singers of less than stellar calibre. And that the Serenade to Music is one of Vaughan Williams’s finest smaller pieces makes the effort supremely worthwhile.
The words come from Act V of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, when Lorenzo and Jessica are at Belmont awaiting the return of Portia from Venice. The scene is famous all through for the lyric beauty of the verse:
The moon shines bright. In such a night as this
Later—and this is where Vaughan Williams comes in—the lovers sit listening to music, gazing at the stars and revelling in the magic of the night. The words are set to music of the most exquisitely sensuous sweetness, totally discrediting that idle old fancy that only mediocre poetry gains from being translated into its sister medium. Vaughan Williams encompasses uncertainties and reflections as well as hedonistic rapture and contentment, and the piece is flawlessly shaped. One of its greatest admirers on the occasion of that memorable first performance was Rachmaninov who, having played his Second Concerto in the first half of the concert, joined Lady Wood and other guests in her box for the second half, where he heard the Serenade. The conductor Felix Weingartner (also in the box) recalled that Rachmaninov sat at the back, his eyes filled with tears; later Rachmaninov told Sir Henry (in a letter Wood later passed on to Vaughan Williams: where is it now, one wonders?) that he had never before been so moved by music. Knowing the kind of man Rachmaninov was, and the music he composed himself and liked to hear and play, there is no reason to suppose he was being insincere.
Five Mystical Songs
How fresh, O Lord, how sweet and clean
Herbert (1593–1633) was for eight years Public Orator at Cambridge, and cherished hopes of preferment at Court. For some reason this did not materialize and he entered the priesthood, therein to spend a mere three years before death cut him off. The Elizabethan age was by then well advanced and Herbert was a younger contemporary of Shakespeare. The English language was expanding and developing, and the Bible and the Prayer Book—known, through the Church, to all sorts and conditions of men—became an important catalyst in the process. Both what Herbert said (like most Anglicans he tried to steer a middle course between Romans and Puritans), and the way he said it, strongly appealed to the Christian agnostic (or ‘disappointed theist’) in Vaughan Williams. They were both preoccupied with that age-old conflict between God and World, Flesh and Spirit, Soul and Senses: it has many synonyms, and at least one Vaughan Williams masterpiece, Flos Campi, was born of it. Vaughan Williams completed the Five Mystical Songs in 1911 and conducted the first performance in September of that year during the Three Choirs Festival in Worcester. Two years before, Walford Davies had produced a large work for the Hereford meeting by name of Noble Numbers, a setting of eleven poems by Herrick and six by Herbert. The latter included ‘The Call’ and ‘Let all the world’, both of which are set by Vaughan Williams in the Mystical Songs; their respective settings of ‘Let all the world’ (later done memorably also by George Dyson and William Walton), both spirited and vigorous, pick the key of D major, a Vaughan Williams favourite for this mood (cf. the Benedicite and the ‘Galliard of the Sons of the Morning’ in Job). Vaughan Williams did not care for Walford Davies, whose music is almost completely forgotten today; but he is a figure not without interest, not least in the way his discerning literary taste may have influenced his contemporaries.
Of Vaughan Williams’s five settings, three—‘I got me flowers’, ‘The Call’ and ‘Let all the world’—reflect the hymnic stance and metre of the poems. The first-named has a definitely Pre-Raphaelite quality which takes us straight into the orbit of Debussy, a composer whose contribution to Vaughan Williams’s musical make-up is apt to be overlooked in favour of Ravel’s. ‘Easter’ is more elaborate in design and Michael Kennedy is surely right to ascribe its richness of orchestral detail to Elgarian prototypes. On the other hand, ‘Love bade me welcome’ looks both more inward and (in terms of Vaughan Williams’s own development) far further forward than the other songs. The rapt stillness at its centre—the Act, at which point in the traditionally Edenic key of E wordless voices intone the ‘O sacrum convivium’—is one of the great moments in Vaughan Williams, like the sighting of the New Jerusalem in Sancta Civitas.
Like the Mystical Songs, the Fantasia on Christmas Carols was introduced by the composer at a Three Choirs Festival, this time at Hereford in 1912. It was the first of several works inspired by the idea of Christmas, others being the masque On Christmas Night, the Nativity play The First Nowell, the great cantata Hodie (which includes a George Herbert setting). The Fantasia is notable both for its restraint (it is by far the least showy of Vaughan Williams’s Christmas pieces, but I’m sure the composer wasn’t intentionally setting out to please the high-minded), and also for the fact that it avoids the most familiar carols. This undoubtedly was intentional: Vaughan Williams wanted to give a wider lease of life to beautiful tunes like ‘On Christmas night’, which he himself had collected in Sussex. Beginning with an introductory cello solo which has a narrative quality (‘Once upon a time’—or should it be ‘In the beginning was the Word’?), the piece falls into four linked sections:
I ‘This is the truth sent from above’ (baritone solo with wordless choral accompaniment)
It was Sir Henry Wood who gave the first performance of Flos Campi in October 1925; one of the ‘select choir of thirty-five voices from the Royal College of Music’, incidentally, was Patrick Hadley—friend, disciple and lifelong devotee of Vaughan Williams and his music, and composer of the great symphonic ballad The Trees so High. Was it Hadley’s experience of Flos Campi which directed him to its literary source—The Song of Solomon—and inspired the gem-like anthem My Beloved Spake? But if Hadley was ravished by Flos Campi, Holst was nonplussed, as many have been to this day. And not without reason. Flos Campi is a very enigmatic piece, difficult to understand, difficult to bring off in performance. A comparable work would perhaps be Delius’s Arabesque: no one knows exactly what the music, or the J P Jacobsen poem of which it is a setting, is about; enough that we can tell the composer underwent some profound mystico-erotic experience which he was moved to commemorate and communicate.
We saw a similar theme touched upon in the Five Mystical Songs: God is Love, God is also Sex: the two are indivisible. Or are they? This is the burden of The Song of Songs. Or is it? Scholars have variously interpreted the Old Testament cycle of poems as designed (a) for a wedding ceremony, (b) for the ancient Adonis-Tammuz celebrations, (c) simply as a collection of poems in praise of Eros. Priestly authorities, dismayed and embarrassed, have glossed it over with symbolic verbiage of the ‘Bride of Christ’ (i.e. the Beloved) variety: the desire is not just for the return of the Beloved as a person of flesh and blood, but, in metaphorical guise (or rather disguise) as the fallen community of man, or even (some have claimed) the lost tribes of Israel. Vaughan Williams’s music suggests that little of this would have crossed his mind, that his inspiration, in this most un-English-sounding of all his works, was buried deep in human passion with all its swift-changing, multi-hued agonies and ecstasies. But, more riddles: Vaughan Williams selects six quotations and superscribes them on each of the six ‘movements’ of his ‘suite’ (his own misnomers, actually, since the work is better thought of as a free-flowing rhapsody or fantasia in six subdivisions) not only in the Latin of the Vulgate but also in the matchless prose of the Authorized Version (originally the translations were not included, thus mystifying listeners even further). Yet these superscriptions offer no more than the vaguest intimations of what the music is evoking or invoking. Even the title is—certainly has been—liable to be misinterpreted: it has nothing to do with ‘buttercups and daisies’ (as Vaughan Williams himself once irritably observed) but is the Vulgate equivalent of the ‘Rose of Sharon’ (as in ‘I am the Rose of Sharon, and the Lily of the Valleys’).
Then there is the strange sound of the music, the bizarre combination—solo viola, small orchestra which is actually more like a chamber ensemble, one of everything except strings whose numbers mustn’t exceed twenty-two, small wordless choir (no more than twenty-six voices). The viola (which Vaughan Williams played himself) was one of his favourite instruments, and hardly an orchestral score of his goes by, from first to last, without at least one beguiling and seductive viola solo. Is the viola here the Vox Floris, the Voice of the Rose? If so, what about the ‘real’ voices who, like the viola, sing ardently, passionately and with longing, but are denied words? There is always an ambiguity about wordless human voices, whether solo or en masse: they sound paradoxically un- or non-human. Generally they represent, for composers, the sounds of elemental nature—as in Holst’s Planets, Delius’s Song of the High Hills, Vaughan Williams’s own Pastoral Symphony, Riders to the Sea and Sinfonia Antartica. Is that their role in Flos Campi? And where is this particular campus, this field of the flower? The music sounds now languorously exotic, now distressfully, impassionedly Judaic, now roughly barbaric, now murmurously impressionistic: the final D major benediction is pure music, basic Vaughan Williams, and suggests nothing and nobody else. A far cry from the sophisticated primitivism of the opening—two instruments, two keys, no bar lines. Plenty here for arch-conservatives to object to, and to cause the ears of younger inquiring minds like Britten’s to prick up (Vaughan Williams’s originality, like his technical prowess—e.g. his marvellous ear for timbres, for orchestrational virtuosity, e.g. Flos Campi—is often underrated).
Here are the superscriptions of the six movements with a few interpolated comments, mainly taken from Herbert Howells’s copy of the full score (HH):
I As the Lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters … [Song of Songs 2: 2] Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples; for I am sick of love (‘quia amore langueo’). [Song of Songs 2: 5] ‘A ‘rhapsodic Prelude’ with counterpoints of chords’ (HH).
Christopher Palmer © 1990