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The Cambridge Companion to Vaughan Williams (Cambridge Companions to Music) Paperback – 14 Nov 2013
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'The fourteen chapters take a variety of differing approaches to the process of exploring Vaughan William's life, work and broader cultural and social surroundings, so that the total result gives a genuine sense of 'something for everyone' … A thoughtful and informative companion.' Malcolm Hayes, BBC Music Magazine
'A challenging and a stimulating read.' Gramophone
' All the essays here are valuable and often insightful … A really fine book about a great composer and a great man.' Classical Music
An icon of British national identity and one of the most widely performed twentieth-century composers, Ralph Vaughan Williams has been as much misunderstood as revered. This Companion presents new perspectives on the composer's music, cultural context and reception in Britain and beyond, and includes interviews with major living composers.See all Product description
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‘The Cambridge Companion to Vaughan Williams’ comprises an introduction followed by fourteen chapters spread over three parts: I. ‘Forging a Path, 1890-1925’, which covers “the emergence of his beliefs and values, musical style and critical reputation”; II. ‘Work by Genre’; and III. ‘Activism, Reception & Influence’. The book’s only illustrations are musical examples.
The five-page introduction summarily chronicles the neglect of this composer since his death, but also the subsequent resurgence of interest in the last couple of decades. (That more needs to be done is made plain to me by the fact that whereas the Danes have released DVDs of all of Nielsen’s symphonies together with a disc of his life, the only VW symphony available on DVD at the time of writing is the eighth.) What follows is only a summary review (due to reasons of space) of the contents of each of the book’s chapters in the order in which they appear.
The first is by Julian Onderdonk, entitled ‘The Composer & Society: Family, Politics, Nation’. The title hints at a standard concise biography of the man. Instead we have an invigorating essay that plays with the view of VW’s iconic status as a national composer. Onderdonk manages to dig deep under popular misconceptions, seeking a balance between his seemingly opposing radical and establishment personas. The essay skilfully shines a light on the age’s “covert cultural politics”.
In chapter two Byron Adams illuminates VW’s “lifelong passion for learning as well as the uses to which he put that learning in the search for his own voice.” Parry, Stanford, Bruch, and Ravel are highlighted. In the third chapter Aidan Thomson looks at the critical reception of VW’s works up to 1925. It is amazing how VW before World War One was not widely seen as a leading light in English musical circles, unlike composers such as Joseph Holbrooke and Cyril Scott! (Who?)
Moving to part two – ‘Works by Genre – one would imagine that there would be less that was new here, less controversy, and indeed many of the surveys in this set of chapters are exactly that, but first we have Alain Frogley’s valuable look at the early orchestral works. Here we learn that VW withdrew the vast majority of his pre-1914 works. (As for his third symphony, I still wonder whether VW ever heard Nielsen’s.)
Chapters five and six are ‘The Songs & Shorter Secular Choral Works’ by Sophie Fuller whilst Charles Edward McGuire looks at the larger choral works in the context of the British festival tradition and its focus on the common man. Julian Onderdonk returns for chapter seven, with “a first attempt to provide a survey of Vaughan Williams’s ‘functional’ music for amateurs, music written for a purpose, Gebrauchsmusik. He concludes that here “innovation was secondary to the overarching social goals that he conceived for his music.”
In chapter eight Eric Saylor provides a welcome – and rare – review of VW’s music for stage and film. The essay is well-written and perceptive. Some works have been lost, remain unperformed or unrecorded, yet much of it betrays the essence of the man: his “dramatic music spans an enormous range, encompassing everything from deadline-driven hackwork to the inspired heights of sublimity.”
Unfortunately, I found Christopher Mark’s review of VW’s chamber music and concertos hard-going with too much technical analysis for this general reader: however true, it does not make for easy reading to be faced with examples such as this: “… the coda, in which the upper strings elaborate a G triad … while the lower strings descend by step until there results a clash of Eb against G …” Again, there is much technical analysis in Julian Horton’s look at the later symphonies, but at least it is interspersed with some narrative. Horton notes that, “perhaps the most compelling argument for the relevance of these works is the way in which they not only absorb, but also critique twentieth-century modernism.”
The final part features four chapters. In ‘The Public Figure: Vaughan Williams as Writer & Activist’, David Manning does what it says on his tin. Jenny Doctor, in ‘Vaughan Williams, Boult, and the BBC’, chronicles the alliance between VW and Boult and VW’s variable relationship with Boult’s employer: “whereas the BBC celebrated the composer’s seventy-fifth birthday heroically, with all stops pulled out, the Corporation approached his eightieth reductively as a ‘best-loved’ anachronism.” (One is reminded of Tony Palmer’s story about the BBC’s response to his own VW documentary film.)
The penultimate chapter – ‘Fluctuations in the Response to the Music of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ – is by the late Michael Kennedy and made all the more valuable by Kennedy’s own personal knowledge of the man. Meanwhile the final chapter is a textual reproduction of a composers’ forum featuring Peter Maxwell Davies, Piers Hellawell, Nicolas Lefanu, and Anthony Payne, who were interviewed separately. Who would have thought the respect – and indeed love – that the likes of Maxwell Davies have for VW’s music!
The book ends with a bibliography and indices.
Overall, then, this is certainly not a staid and standard regurgitation of what has gone before, but rather it is an invigorating and valuable collection of essays that well show the strength of recent research into the man and his music.
Most helpful customer reviews on Amazon.com
In hindsight the online resource "Ralph Vaughn Williams Society" would have sufficed for me.If, like me, you wanted to go through his work in chronological order that is difficult with this book which is organized by more by genre, influence etc.
A real bargain on Amazon is the CD collection "Vaughn Williams, The Collectors Edition" from EMI. It is wonderful and under $40 for 30 CDs. There is so much more to this composer than I had imagined. His life and work was certainly under appreciated by me.