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|Lawrence Power (viola), BBC National Chorus of Wales, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Martyn Brabbins (conductor)|
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).
from notes by Christopher Palmer © 1990
Other albums featuring this work
Vaughan Williams: Serenade to Music, Flos Campi, Mystical Songs
CDA30025 Hyperion 30th Anniversary series