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Five Tudor Portraits. A Choral Suite in five movements

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The first performance of Vaughan Williams’s Five Tudor Portraits was given at the Norwich Festival in 1936. ‘I think they thought they’d get “O Praise the Lord”,’ the composer noted, ‘but I sent them the Five Tudor Portraits.’ It was clearly a shock to many since the poems set were by John Skelton, a Tudor poet whose vigorous realistic and earthy verses may be said to have caused consternation among certain members of the audience. Skelton, a one-time tutor to Henry VIII (when Duke of York), used what became known as a ‘Skeltonic line’, a short erratic rhyming verse which may descend from Medieval Latin rhyming prose. The ribald ‘Tunning of Elinor Rumming’ is an excellent example of this and such verses were well-known to Elgar who described the Skelton metre as often being pure jazz. The first performance of the Five Tudor Portraits under the baton of the composer earned wide praise from the critics of the day. Astra Desmond gave ‘the most delicate picture of a drunken hag at the famous brewing’, noted The Times; ‘everyone concerned caught the spirit of the thing, and the composer conducted a brilliant first performance’. Edwin Evans in The Musical Times reported that he had rarely seen an English audience ‘so relieved of concert-room inhibitions’.

Despite the enormous initial success of the Five Tudor Portraits, however, the work has not subsequently enjoyed the frequency of performance its musical merits may be said to have earned. The reason for this may well lie in the difficulty of the work, especially in respect of the characterization required, and also because the earthiness of the archaic humour contained in many of the verses is not universally appreciated. As the eminent writer Michael Kennedy has pointed out in his quite excellent The Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams, to some extent the design of the work may be to blame. Three fine short movements appear to be outweighed by the two long ones of which ‘Jane Scroop’ is so good that it tends to overshadow the whole work.

The uninhibited setting of ‘Elinor Rumming’ with which Vaughan Williams begins the suite shows the composer’s undoubted delight in the racy Skelton verses. Eventually, the varying rhythms are slowed to accommodate ‘drunken Alice’, whose revelations are tellingly accompanied by piccolo, trumpet and horn. ‘Pretty Bess’ follows, an Intermezzo of great charm in which the soloist’s protestations are echoed by the male chorus. It is also the male chorus that sings the ‘Epitaph on John Jayberd of Diss’ the eponymous subject of which Skelton had known—and obviously disliked since he revels John Jayberd’s demise; Vaughan Williams echoes these sentiments in some brilliant choral writing. The section ends with a parody of the Office for the Dead.

The following Romanza is no parody but a real requiem for a pet sparrow killed by a cat. Tender innocence is marvellously portrayed in both verse and music in this lament by a lady for her lost pet. Little Jane and her friends carry the minute coffin to its interment, chanting words from the Requiem. The sensitivity of orchestral writing in this movement is one of Vaughan Williams’s most remarkable achievements. The air is full of the sound of birds and, at the climax, Jane’s voice can be heard intoning the Miserere. The chorus, in a glorious passage, sings of the approaching night and for Philip Sparrow’s soul. Here Vaughan Williams is truly inspired; avoiding sentimentality he unerringly evokes an emotional response of genuine depth.

To be successful the final song could only be a complete contrast to ‘Jane Scroop’, and so it is. ‘Jolly Rutterkin’ is a delightful Scherzo that uses cross-rhythms in an exciting and masterly fashion. It brings a fine work to an eminently satisfying conclusion.

Nearly thirty years after his time in Paris with Ravel was not Vaughan Williams still reaping the benefit of his studies there? There are many pointers to that conclusion in the Five Tudor Portraits.

from notes by Peter Lamb © 1999


Vaughan Williams: Five Tudor Portraits & Five Mystical Songs


No 1. Ballad: The Tunning of Elinor Rumming  Tell you I will
Track 6 on CDH55004 [13'45]
No 2. Intermezzo: Pretty Bess  My proper Bess
Track 7 on CDH55004 [3'12]
No 3. Burlesca: Epitaph on John Jayberd of Diss  Sequitur trigintale
Track 8 on CDH55004 [3'25]
No 4. Romanza: Jane Scroop, Her Lament for Philip Sparrow  Placebo! Who is there, who?
Track 9 on CDH55004 [23'17]
No 5. Scherzo: Jolly Rutterkin  Hoyda, jolly Rutterkin, hoyda!
Track 10 on CDH55004 [4'31]

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