Friday, 4 June 2010

Melted into air, into thin air

Ralph Vaughan Williams
is my favourite classical composer. He’s also British, very British, and that both makes me happy (I’m not a racist, I just like to relate) and is absolutely integral to his life and work.

Often derided by contemporary critics for a lack of edge, Vaughan Williams is probably best known for his beautiful pastoral music but, from 1924, he was experimenting with harmonics and, with his fourth symphony in 1935, presented a dissonant and dramatic work that startled the critics.

As he grew older, Vaughan Williams continued to push the boundaries of his work and, although he could never be called avant garde, his appetite for the new and unusual continued up until his death in 1958 at the age of 86.

Vaughan Williams’ Sixth Symphony was written in the immediate post war years and premiered in 1948. It would be an astonishing work by anyone, let alone a 76 year old who was Britain’s most successful and most respected composer since Elgar.

The symphony contrasts high drama and blank horror, wistful pastoral folk and aggressive martial marches, and is most obviously a reaction to the carnage of the second world war, although Vaughan Williams (characteristically) would not be drawn on his inspiration (his stock response to questions about his influences and themes was “it never seems to occur to people that a man just might want to write a piece of music”).

The first allegro has a startling (and very loud) opening in which the music seems to climb and then fall from a precipice before moving into an urgent and slightly chaotic section which, in turn, introduces one of the most evocative folk melodies Vaughan Williams ever wrote, a short, stirring passage of harp and strings that is gradually overwhelmed by a reprise of the strident drama of the opening bars. It is a stunning climax to an incredible piece of music.

The closing epilogue is a remarkable fugue that is played extremely softly and, occasionally, imperceptibly, drifting in and out of hearing. Much has been made of it as a musical illustration of the aftermath of an atomic blast, the soundtrack to a dead world. Listening to it with that in mind, it’s hard not to picture the slow fluttering of radioactive dust onto a ruined city, although Vaughan Williams hinted that he was thinking more of Prospero’s famous lines from ‘The Tempest’: ‘we are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little lives are rounded with a sleep’.

The interpretations here are relatively recent, and were conducted by Bernard Haitink in 2004.

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