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It had been an arduous journey, however. Vaughan Williams was nearly forty and had served a long apprenticeship: two years at the Royal College of Music studying composition with Parry, three years for a Bachelor of Music degree at Cambridge University, two more years at the Royal College (this time under Stanford), a few months in Germany under the guidance of Max Bruch, and finally, in 1908, three months in Paris to acquire ‘a little French polish’ from Ravel. To which one might add the self-education that came about through his investigations into English folksong (he collected his first example on 4 December 1904) and the years of intensive research that went into preparing the great English Hymnal for publication in 1906. Such were the labours that transformed him from a composer in the German mould into a voice that could only be English. Something of this process can be felt in On Wenlock Edge. In it, the discipline of German symphonic thought is tempered by the subtlety of French impressionism and invigorated by the melodic directness of English folksong. The result is the unique language of Vaughan Williams and a turning point in the history of British music.
A E Housman’s A Shropshire Lad poems were published in March 1896. Though not the first composer to recognise their suitability for music (that distinction belongs to Sir Arthur Somervell), Vaughan Williams’s cycle was the first fully integrated interpretation to appear (George Butterworth’s cycles belong to 1911 and 1912). In all essentials, Vaughan Williams’s conception is symphonic—though more a matter of emotional sweep than thematic development. Where appropriate, he treats the song as drama. Thus the conversation between the living and the dead in ‘Is my team ploughing?’ becomes a miniature opera, while the bell-like accompaniment of ‘Bredon Hill’ provides a background symphony of great dramatic intensity. Similarly, the flaring strings that accompany ‘On Wenlock Edge’ depict not only the storms that trouble the woods, but also the emotional gales that move the protagonist. And who but Vaughan Williams could have conjured up the mood of spiritual resignation and fulfilment that brings the cycle to its noble end? By any standards, On Wenlock Edge is a remarkable achievement.
from notes by Michael Hurd © 2000
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