The Songs of Travel made a strong impression on audiences and musicians of the time; for instance, Arthur Bliss, nineteen years Vaughan Williams’s junior, who studied at Cambridge between 1910 and 1913, recalled in his autobiography As I Remember: ‘To us musicians in Cambridge Vaughan Williams was the magical name; his Songs of Travel were on all pianos’. In the context of the development of English song they are important too, for they reflect a significant advance from the parlour song to the art song which professional singers—such as the cycle’s dedicatee, the bass-baritone Plunket Greene—were encouraging composers to write. Here, like the Somervell cycles, was a work conceived in the tradition of the early Romantic questing song cycle of love and loss. Nevertheless, it differs from its models and from Somervell’s works in that there is no real narrative thread from one poem to the next, rather a set of different circumstances on which the poet comments. Significant too is the influence of folksong on several of the songs. Vaughan Williams collected his first folksong, ‘Bushes and Briars’, in December 1903 and the experience of finding the lovely traditional tunes is apparent in Songs of Travel.
The opening song ‘The vagabond’ establishes the cycle’s Romantic credentials; indeed Stevenson had composed the words ‘To an air of Schubert’. Its steady tramping accompaniment, combined with a triplet which prefigures the opening of the vocal line, evokes the purposeful tread of the wanderer striding out on the open road. ‘Let Beauty awake’, with its images of dawn and dusk, has a fervent melodic line that floats on a buoyant arpeggio accompaniment. Particularly memorable is the bitter-sweet radiance of the phrase ‘And the stars are bright in the west!’, which recurs as a link between the verses and in the brief coda. Over a joyous accompaniment, ‘The roadside fire’ radiates the delight of new-found love that bubbles over ecstatically in the final verse. ‘Youth and love’ is the kernel of the cycle and points to its central dilemma: which is preferable, ‘love’ and by implication a settled life, or ‘solitude’ and the freedom to wander. As if emphasising the choice to be made, the accompaniment includes transformed allusions to the triplet figure from ‘The vagabond’ and the opening phrase of ‘The roadside fire’ at the song’s climax. ‘In dreams’ has a chill melancholy, created through a persistent, uneasy off-beat rhythm in the piano and a brooding chromatic vocal line. Pianissimo, wide-spaced arppegiated piano chords, combined with an expansive melodic line evoke the vast brilliance of the night sky in ‘The infinite shining heavens’, in which the traveller, gazing above, finds peace. ‘Whither must I wander?’ has a homely simplicity, appropriate to the poet’s images of childhood and the security of home and family which are now long in the past, never to return. In its character it is close to Vaughan Williams’s most renowned song ‘Linden Lea’, composed the year before it. A sole sonorous chord, like a call to attention, opens ‘Bright is the ring of words’, whose forthright melody incorporates the opening notes of the hymn ‘Sine nomine’ (‘For all the Saints’), which haunted the composer throughout his life. The brief epilogue, with its references to ‘The vagabond’, ‘Whither must I wander?’ and ‘Bright is the ring of words’, encapsulates the whole cycle with the wanderer, now old, looking ahead to his final journey beyond the grave.
from notes by Andrew Burn © 2003
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