on 25 December 2007
Tony Palmer's film is highly informative, beautifully filmed and quite shocking at times. It is likely to remain a definitive resource for those wishing to know more about this great composer's life and music for years to come.
Many will perhaps have a rather cuddly image of Vaughan Williams who wrote lovely tunes and was the epitome of "Englishness". This film will make you think otherwise.
Of course VW wrote such favourites as The Lark Ascending (Classic FM's listeners' favourite piece of classical music), Greensleeves, The Tallis Fantasia. However the core of his achievement is the unique cycle of 9 symphonies and Palmer rightly focuses on them as we are taken on a journey through the man's life and work. VW though a large and loveable man in old age, an image that seems to predominate in the public mind was in fact a very tall and handsome figure in his youth, a time when he wrote some of his most lyrical music. The film is at its most powerful when focussing on VW's dark side and the effect this had on his music. A long life shattered by first hand experience of both World Wars. The frustration, rage and eventual happiness he had in his relationship with two women, his despair for the future of mankind, his agnostic spirituality are revealed both in the musical excerpts and Palmer's wonderful use of imagery.
Visually we are given the full range, hauntingly beautiful scenes of nature, the ferocious power of the sea and the harrowing devastation of war and famine. The music is most cleverly grafted into the biography and excellently played in specially filmed takes. I particularly liked the director's lighting of the orchestra which shows the players and their instruments in great clarity. Other highlights are old footage of the composer and his voice (taken from old broadcasts)talking about his life and music. All sorts of people pop up in the film to inform us why he was special to them. There is much else that this short review hasn't space for.
This film is a must see for anyone interested in the composer, classical music or the history of the 20th century, it is an affectionate but blunt, often disturbing portrait of a very great man from a director who is a master in the art-film genre.
N.B. Amazon have the running time of the DVD as 129 minutes which is incorrect. My copy of the DVD runs 2 hours and 28 minutes, this is a long film and justly so.
on 30 December 2007
Apart from Ken Russell's documentary of 1986, a film I found deeply disappointing, there have been no films about Ralph Vaughan William's life and music that I can recall. Yet he is one of England's great composers, arguably the greatest, given the range of his music, its Englishness and the humanity of the man. `O Thou Transcendent' fills a large gap.
The length of this film allows the director breathing space to cover both the composer's life and music in some detail. The symphonies are at the heart of his output and these are given understandable prominence but plenty of other music is covered. The National Youth Orchestra bears most of the burden and they do it with great skill and flair. There is some interesting footage of Vaughan Williams (RVW) taken when he was very old and a few recordings of his voice. There are contributions from people close to the composer, some archive material, some made for this film. The structure of the film seems a little random, flitting back and forth over the decades of his life. A strictly chronological approach is a bit obvious but if you don't do this, you need something else to hold the structure together. Viewers who are new to this material might get lost.
There are one or two main themes running through the film. One is the popular image of the amateurish composer writing mainly pleasant, pastoral pieces. The idea that he had poor technique was fed by his self-deprecating remarks. I always thought that these remarks were part of his humour but the film did reveal evidence that he was subject to more self-doubt than is generally realised. As for his music consisting wholly of bucolic rhapsodising, Tony Palmer shows how false that is, revealing his art as encompassing the whole emotional range - the ecstatic lyricism of the Tallis Fantasia and The Lark Ascending to the ferocious outbursts of Job and the 4th and 6th symphonies.
The most important thread explores the relationship between the music and his personal life and international events. The usual - and lazy - links concern the 4th symphony - it predicted the Second World War- and the 6th symphony's epilogue supposedly describing a post-nuclear wasteland. None of these `meanings' came from the composer and they rather irritated him. A more convincing `explanation' came from Michael Kennedy, a close friend of the composer and leading authority on his music. He thinks the music of the 4th symphony is more a self-portrait of RVW. He was a man prone to rages but otherwise was the kindest and most thoughtful of men.
RVW was married to Adeline. She developed a chronic arthritic condition which gradually worsened over the decades. The film suggests that this took an enormous toll on him mentally, not least in the sexual side of marriage. That this anguish and frustration found itself into the music is likely. The Elgarian, Jerrold Northrop Moore, made the astonishing assertion that Adeline was suffering from a psychosomatic condition which provided her with an unconscious excuse to avoid sexual activity. A severe arthritic condition - with no treatment at that time - would be quite enough without bringing in frigidity as an explanation. I wonder what the members of her family, who also contributed, are going to make of this. Michael Kennedy, however, did confirm that Vaughan Williams was having an affair with Ursula Wood, later to become his second wife, for some years before Adeline died (RVW was in his 60s by this time).
Much of the film showed images of marching soldiers, war and the effects of terrorism. One image was shown twice - a poor, charred dead child on a stretcher. Many will find this very distressing. I feel this aspect of the film was overdone to quite a degree. There was even an attempt by one contributor to rope in the Tallis Fantasia as representing death and hopelessness. To take such a view of this noble masterpiece, written in 1910 and before RVW had seen the carnage of the battlefield, is absurd. The piece takes its general atmosphere from Tallis' original hymn, written a few hundred years before.
My criticisms are nothing compared to the magisterial sweep of this film and I would recommend it to all lovers of Vaughan Williams and especially those who don't. At the end one is impressed by the sheer magnificence of the man, a man with personal qualities we all wish we had but do not. At the end of the film, Ursula Vaughan Williams, shortly before her death, voices a crie de coeur, revealing how much she still loved and missed him so long after he died in 1958. This, more than anything else, lingers in my mind.
on 9 January 2008
Documentaries of any kind on Classical Music are always welcome due to their relative scarcity, because of this when they do arrive it is all the more important that they are informative, illuminating and above all not misleading.
This film should be a treasure, a whole documentary given to the contemplation of one of Britain's most important composers, it certainly promises a treat, a worthy running time, packed with valuable interviews with important figures in the great man's life; Michael Kennedy, Ursula VW, Evelyn Barbirolli, numerous descendants of his peers..
Indeed these interviews are insightful and much of the time is given to sizable snippets of the music, which of course is what it is all about and so why did this film leave me so annoyed?
Firstly the randomness of the material, the viewer must have a good understanding of the chronology of his work as the film itself makes no attempt to follow one. it may be predictable to make a documentary chronological but for a subject like VW whose personal progress and social surroundings inform so much of his work this is the most helpful way of understanding his life and legacy.
The excerpts skip from 1st symphony to the 6th to the 4th back to the 6th to the 2nd, lingering long over the inferior 7th and completely ignoring the important 3rd, in following this random pattern the viewer is left no more informed and with little idea of where the music comes from.
The second issue is the gratuitous footage of war and suffering that reappears over and over again throughout the film, it first appears quite appropriately whilst discussing VW's war experience and maybe-maybe-not war music, but then it keeps returning, unnecessarily disturbing the viewer with shots of dead children, charred flesh and starving figures all of which quite inappropriately colours what the viewer is listening to.
This all leads to the biggest fault of the film, that is the overwhelming desire of the filmmaker that we should see VW's music as despair-ridden visions of hopelessness, the last half of the film seems to be sloped towards this idea and with the help of shocking imagery, carefully selected excerpts and the ludicrous idea from one interviewee that even the Tallis Fantasia is about hopelessness and death, all leaves the viewer with a picture no less misrepresentative than the long held misconception of VW as a dreary pastoral composer.
Whilst i don't doubt the presence of these dark ideas in VW's powerful music they are only part of a much more complex musical personality, one that includes also much hope and celestial light.
As the title of the review suggests it is a missed opportunity, with such a wealth of material it could have been so much more, and it is probably a long time before we get another one, but as is so commonly seen elsewhere, the filmmaker seems to have their own agenda to bring to the viewer, which is a surprise after the superior films on other British composers that this director has produced.
Fans of VW should watch this because it contains valuable material on an increasingly rare subject but i would suggest renting it rather than buying it as you very probably won't want to repeat the experience.
on 2 February 2008
This is a very welcome film about a great composer who is woefully under-represented on DVD. It is certainly time that we should review RVW's career and our own perception of it, and Tony Palmer's beautifully made film offers an enjoyable and interesting starting point. The contributions of those who knew the man are valuable and well chosen, though I (for one) could have listened to Michael Kennedy throughout. His comments were often more succinct and perceptive than any point the film-maker was trying to get across.
And that brings me to my main gripe, that it seems to me that Tony Palmer has started with a thesis (RVW the despondent pessimist, rather than Uncle Ralph, 'cowpat' composer) and has 'spun' his film to achieve that conclusion. I suppose it is a sign of the times that the viewers cannot be left to make up their own minds from the facts, but the seeds of pessimism (nihilism, almost) are apparent in A Sea Symhony and the Tallis Fantasia! Or so we are assured. Never mind that not one of those who knew the composer seems to endorse this view with the barest conviction, it must be true because the narrator says so.
And facts are manipulated to give one preferential view. We are told that RVW was deeply affected by his experience in a field ambulance in WW1; we don't really know in what way or by how much since we are also told that he never spoke about it, but the film speculates that the need to pick up eyes, fingers and 'half a head' was responsible (we are told this twice). We are told that RVW enlisted as a private soldier when he could have 'bought' a commission (no he couldn't, by the way - that practice had been abolished in the previous century). But many other musicians enlisted as privates. George Butterworth and friends (mostly too from privileged backgrounds) did so, but accepted commissions soon after; Ivor Gurney remained a private throughout. And RVW accepted a commission in the Royal Artillery! We are not told this in the film, leaving the suspicion that being an artillery officer is not quite as noble as stretcher-bearer. Also, of course, RVW was Musical Director of the BEF First Army, and to top it all, he needn't have enlisted at all - he was almost 42 at the outbreak. We are not told any of this, either. He clearly wanted to 'do his bit', and we are later told that he did not agree with Michael Tippett's conscientious objector views about the next war, although he supported his right to have them.
The worst thing about this, however, is that it seems to underly the film's message. Time and again, RVW's works are related directly to war and famine. Satan in Job cuts to the Third Reich, the Sixth Symphony calls up terrible images from Iraq. Even the Seventh Symphony is used to demonstrate lack of hope for the future (well, I suppose it does, but after all it grew out of a hopeless story on film). The gruesome scenes (particularly from wars that RVW did not know) spring up many times - as if RVW somehow saw all this future misery. It all smacks of being wise after the event.
And what do those who knew RVW say? That the Fourth Symphony is a portrait of the composer raging against his 'imprisonment' in marriage to a crippled wife; that the Fifth is Ursula Wood, who brought him out of it; that Satan's theme in Job came to him at a dinner party. I am sure that the Sixth must contain something of WW2 - how could it not, being written in 1946? - but surely not a vision of post-nuclear destruction written by chance several years before mutual destruction was a real possibility.
Interestingly, A Pastoral Symhony is the only symphony not mentioned, and yet the only one that almost certainly arose out of RVW's WW1 experience. If anything, it is a homage to George Butterworth (dedicatee of, and prime-mover in the creation of, the London Symphony), a close friend who had died on the Somme. (The relationship between the two composers is not mentioned at all, even though we see a silent film of Butterworth with Cecil Sharp and the Karpeles sisters dancing.)
There are several factual errors, as you might expect in a three-hour documentary, and most amount to little, but it is amusing to see a fine portrait of Sir George Grove appear when the narrator talks about C. V. Stanford!
The music is well played, and given in big chunks, although the two orchestras are always shown with heavy side-lighting that makes it seem that they are playing in the dark (perhaps this is done to emphasise the pessimism). Tantalising, though, were excerps from historical performances, particularly a studio one of the Fifth Symphony conducted beautifully by Boult. Now that should be on DVD.
After three absorbing hours, RVW is actually summed up rather well - and completely against the trend of the narration - by Michael Kennedy (as a visionary) and Ursula Vaughan Williams (as a dear man whom she loved).
Do buy this DVD - it is good - but, oh!, how much better it could have been without the 21st century gloss..
on 11 January 2008
Well this film has certainly brought out some interesting discussions! Perhaps the fact that emotions are running high shows how powerful the film is?
I can't claim to be an expert in RVW's history or character, but as a singer in the Leith Hill Musical Festival, which RVW's sister co-founded in 1905, and the great man conducted for nearly 50 years, I found it a great education. There are many people at LHMF who knew RVW and the reaction to the film so far has been, in summary, of a "stunning" work.
As I stand on stage at the Dorking Halls in April and sing "Let All the World in Every Corner Sing", it will be with immense pride to be associated with such a magnificent man who made so many important contributions to English music - a fact which the film brings out perfectly. Well done Tony Palmer.
Buy it and make your own mind up!
The title of Tony Palmer's film comes from the words of Walt Whitman that Vaughan William set to music in his first symphony. The film opens with Simon Bates on Classic FM introducing number one in the radio station's countdown of the nation's favourite classical pieces as voted by listeners, Vaughan Williams's `A Lark Ascending'. This is then followed by critic Stephen Johnson telling us emphatically that this is not `cuddly Ralph.'
Using comments from and interviews with around forty people who had dealings with the man or who have been inspired by him, the film then sets out to discover the real Vaughan Williams. As Palmer writes in the sleevenote that accompanies the DVD, "the main thrust of my film ... is about the man himself ... My intention is not hagiography. It is simply this: to explode for ever the image of a cuddly old uncle." (Or, as Harrison Birtwistle puts it, Mr Badger from `Wind in the Willows'.)
Much of the narration in this film is provided by the excellent and perceptive Stephen Johnson and by Vaughan Williams's personal friend and music critic Michael Kennedy. But there is also a voice that appears to be Vaughan Williams's own, narrating his own life: but is it really always his own voice or someone reading his words?
There are a couple of surprises from his personal life, but which, when one thinks about them, are not really that surprising. I refer firstly to the illness of his first wife probably being psychosomatic: was the marriage ever consummated? Jerrold Moore ponders in the film whether the anger of the fourth symphony was Vaughan Williams's rage against her. And secondly, that his second wife may have become pregnant by him during the war and had an abortion. This would be while Vaughan Williams's first wife was still living.
As with his other film biographies of twentieth-century British composers, Palmer features extensive extracts from their compositions. Only this time he has chosen some stunning library landscape photography that adds to the mystical Englishness - not a nationalistic Englishness - that pervades Vaughan Williams's music and to which many of the commentators in this film refer.
But Palmer has also chosen some other scenes that, in contrast, are truly shocking, scenes of great inhumanity to set against the music of this most humane of composers. I was deeply moved, especially with the scenes of World War One juxtaposed with the sound of the `Tallis Fantasia', and again later listening to extracts from the fifth and sixth symphonies. With regard to filming the orchestras, Palmer adopts what seems to have become his standard policy, namely violins and woodwinds seen in profile from the right, and brass and bass from the left, all reflective in a sharp reddish-brown light.
Despite annoying changes in aspect ratios as we negotiate wide-screen landscapes with extracts from filmed interviews from pre-widescreen eras, the film is a triumph. But why are there still (at the time of writing) no DVD set available of complete performances of Vaughan Williams's symphonies. When the Danes can do this for their splendid Carl Nielsen, I feel ashamed that this country has not for the most English of its own composers.
on 25 May 2008
The solitary indisputable triumph of this film lies in the performances of extracts from many of the works of Ralph Vaughan Williams. With one exception, they are very well performed; well enough, I suspect and hope, to inspire those unfamiliar with the composer's works to seek out complete recordings, or, better still, live performances. The problem, however, is that the quality of the music and of the performances disguises the truly threadbare nature of everything else in this documentary. It is a tragically missed opportunity, considering that people who worked with Vaughan Williams, including some who knew him well, were interviewed, but seem to have been invited to comment only on the most ridiculous trivia. I find it hard, for instance, to believe that the late Evelyn Barbirolli, a highly talented musician in her own right, as well as the wife of Sir John and a friend of RVW, had no more insights into the composer's music than are vouchsafed here. The interviews that actually do touch on the music in detail tend to be those with people not obviously qualified to inform us about anything other than their own opinions, notably Stephen Johnson. His fatuous comments about the Tallis Fantasia have already been rightly criticized by some reviewers here and defended, pretty ineptly, by other contributors. Johnson asserts that the Fantasia is obsessed with death, which observation is used by Tony Palmer to justify treating the Fantasia as a premonition of WWI, a self-evidently absurd idea. To be fair to Johnson, his own comments are never quite that daft, but they seem wilfully misleading, even so. Johnson is at pains to point out that Vaughan Williams used the Tallis theme first as the tune for a hymn, setting the words, "When Rising From My Bed of Death". According to Johnson, this shows the morbid associations that RVW attached to the music and thence to his Fantasia. Vaughan Williams, however, must have known the original setting of the Tallis tune, as one of a number of wonderful melodies contributed to Archbishop Parker's Psalter: "Why fum'th in fight the Gentiles spite, in fury raging stout?" It's not about death, any more than is the text to which he matched the sublime tune. "When Rising From My Bed of Death" is about life, in the form of resurrection, and not really about death at all. That Vaughan Williams probably didn't believe in "the life everlasting" is neither here nor there; he knew what the text of the hymn meant (unlike Mr. Johnson, apparently) and his choice of tune suited that meaning, not his own viewpoint on matters religious. This notion of RVW's music as raging against The War, or just war in general, becomes an idee fixe of the film, with plenty of imagery dating from wars well after RVW's lifetime. It's a bit like Mussolini's nationalisation of Puccini, when Puccini was at death's door and too weak to object. Palmer colonises dead RVW with a host of preconceptions, displaying very little sign that he (Palmer) either knows how to distinguish between true testimony and mere opinion, or has made very much effort to try. I think I am being very generous in giving three stars to this film, but I have to be fair to the musicians. Left to themselves, they'd get five.
I've read the other reviews so far and find them largely a very thoughtful and interesting collection - maybe that in itself is a small tribute to the subject of this film, Ralph Vaughan Williams. V.W. is not a fashionable composer and never really was (Andre Previn makes the point in the film that orchestral programmers are reluctant to allow him to put VW Symphonies on his programmes). That, again, is perhaps to his credit. He was an entirely individual voice, and I think this film goes some way towards explaining where this individuality came from and examining its nature. It is a long film with a wealth of good material - excellent contributions from Michael Kennedy, Stephen Johnson, Ursula Vaughan Williams (very touchingly at the end as a very old, frail lady speaking simply about the man and how much she loved him), friends, people associated with the Leith Hill Festival , Lady Barbirolli, etc., etc.. There are also excellent musical contributions from the National Youth orchestra under Sian Edwards and the Hungarian State Orchestra under Tamas Vasary, and we see a number of fine singers, Nicola Benedetti and others too. I am not quite so fond of the very 'staged', backlit filming of the orchestras and conductors as some other reviewers have been - it is indeed very dramatic, but it is also very artificial. I am happier with the wonderfully natural short extract from an archive broadcast of Sir Adrian Boult conducting the Romanza of the Fifth Symphony. However, the musical illustrations are a strong element in this film. So is the archive footage of places with which Vaughan Williams was associated and Victorian and Edwardian London. What I am less certain about is the link made between horror and his music. He did indeed serve in the First War and live with memories from that for the rest of his life, and the 'Pastoral' Symphony is usually (perhaps paradoxically) associated with that, but very very stark, almost unwatchable images from other wars and conflicts form an important element in this film and I am not convinced that the thesis they seem to project is right. There is also a fair degree of weight placed on the nature of his first marriage (to the long-term invalid Adeline Fisher), and the explicitness with which this is investigated, and in particular some comments made on his relationship with Ursula, his second wife, as a young woman, while possibly quite accurate, are uncomfortable ; V.W. and all those of his time would I think have been unhappy with them, would have regarded these as private matters. In all of this the hand of the filmmaker of our time is a little too apparent. Having said that, it is clearly a film made with love. Its largely chronological structure works well. Despite what I said about the orchestral backlighting, there are certainly moments when the music blazes the more effectively because of the way it is presented - I think, for example, of the end of 'The Pilgrim's Progress', which comes at us with tremendous conviction. And in the end, there is so much in this film that is good that there is never any question of a poor review ; I think back, as another reviewer did, to Ken Russell's terrible, terrible self-indulgent film on the same subject and am the more thankful that this new film exists. It lasts 2 hours and 28 minutes - a long time - but, though I have some reservations, I was never less than interested and never less than certain that we were watching a good film about a great composer and that all that appeared on screen gave evidence of his greatness. In that sense, if not quite in every other, I think it did justice to its subject.
Whether or not you are convinced by Tony Palmer's thesis in this documentary film that, far from being the ruminative English pastoralist that audiences of the time felt him to be, Vaughan Williams was in fact a man with a troubled personal life and a philosophical outlook which became increasingly bleak the older he became, all of us are in Palmer's debt for capturing conversations with many people (most of whom are now very old) who knew the composer well. Indeed, some, including Ursula, the composer's widow, have died since the film was made last year.
Moreover, Tony Palmer has created a thorough and comprehensive portrait of the composer, largely through his music, with a helpful spoken commentary, chiefly given by two admirable writers, Michael Kennedy and Stephen Johnson, that will provide valuable insights to new listeners as well as those more familiar with the work.
The documentary has been issued at an interesting moment, namely the fiftieth anniversary of Vaughan Williams' death in 1958. What is especially fascinating is the extent to which this composer's work has grown in public estimation during that time. We need to thank Tony Palmer for the film, and thank Michael Kennedy most warmly for his consistent championship of the music.
on 24 April 2013
I was rather enjoying this documentary, being such a fan of his music, but had to turn it off less than halfway through. The performances contained are interspersed with the most disturbing images of war and the holocaust I have ever seen. I normally have an iron stomach when it comes to disturbing documentaries, but I found myself, like another reviewer here, feeling forced to look away from the screen several times, due to the extreme nature of the footage. I'm sure there was a point to this, but it's the heaviest handed approach I have ever seen at getting across an arguable point of view by a director! On top of this, the documentary had feel of being 'cobbled' together, with the aim in mind to portray RVW as some sort of prophet wallowing in doom. What the images of Serbian war atrocities have to do with his music I'm not sure. I just hope what I viewed won't taint my future listening of the great man. I think I'm being generous by giving 2 stars!