Though rightly regarded as one of the twentieth century’s great symphonists, Ralph Vaughan Williams responded to the setting of words throughout his long life. Songs were therefore as significant among his earliest efforts as they were in his final creative period. On Wenlock Edge was composed in 1909 and first performed by Gervase Elwes (tenor) and the Schwiller Quartet, with Frederick Kiddle (piano), in the Aeolian Hall in London’s Bond Street, on 19 November. It signalled what the ‘Sea Symphony’ and the ‘Tallis Fantasia’ would confirm in the following year, that a major composer had arrived on the British musical scene.

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

Recordings

Gurney: Ludlow and Teme & The Western Playland; Vaughan Williams: On Wenlock Edge
CDH55187Helios (Hyperion's budget label) Composers of World War I
Vaughan Williams: On Wenlock Edge; Warlock: The Curlew; Gurney: Ludlow and Teme
CKD296Download only
Vaughan Williams: Songs
CDA67168

Details

No 1: On Wenlock Edge
Track 24 on CDA67168 [3'36]
Track 1 on CDH55187 [3'57] Helios (Hyperion's budget label) Composers of World War I
Track 1 on CKD296 [3'33] Download only
No 2: From far, from eve and morning
Track 25 on CDA67168 [2'12]
Track 2 on CDH55187 [2'15] Helios (Hyperion's budget label) Composers of World War I
Track 2 on CKD296 [2'02] Download only
No 3: Is my team ploughing?
Track 26 on CDA67168 [3'48]
Track 3 on CDH55187 [3'47] Helios (Hyperion's budget label) Composers of World War I
Track 3 on CKD296 [3'48] Download only
No 4: Oh, when I was in love with you
Track 27 on CDA67168 [0'36]
Track 4 on CDH55187 [0'41] Helios (Hyperion's budget label) Composers of World War I
Track 4 on CKD296 [0'41] Download only
No 5: Bredon Hill  In summertime on Bredon
Track 28 on CDA67168 [7'36]
Track 5 on CDH55187 [8'25] Helios (Hyperion's budget label) Composers of World War I
Track 5 on CKD296 [7'33] Download only
No 6: Clun  In valleys of springs of rivers
Track 29 on CDA67168 [3'42]
Track 6 on CDH55187 [3'23] Helios (Hyperion's budget label) Composers of World War I
Track 6 on CKD296 [3'27] Download only

Track-specific metadata for CDA66385 track 2

From far, from eve and morning
Artists
ISRC
GB-AJY-90-38502
Duration
2'15
Recording date
26 October 1989
Recording venue
Kimpton Parish Church, Hertfordshire, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Recording engineer
Hyperion usage
  1. Gurney: Ludlow and Teme & The Western Playland; Vaughan Williams: On Wenlock Edge (CDH55187)
    Disc 1 Track 2
    Release date: November 2004
    Helios (Hyperion's budget label) Composers of World War I