Vaughan Williams’ “In the Fen Country”: A Symphonic Impression

The Fens are a bleak, desolate, and relentlessly flat marshland found in East Anglia on the east coast of England. They resemble a slice of the Netherlands, transported from the other side of the North Sea. Their austere mystery inspired Graham Swift in his 1983 novel, Waterland, to ask, “what are the Fens, which so imitate in their levelness the natural disposition of water, but a landscape which, of all landscapes, most approximates to Nothing?” Alluding to the oppressive, stale air which rises from this swamp land, Shakespeare’s King Lear, in cursing his daughter, exclaims, “Infect her beauty, You fen-sucked fogs, drawn by the powerful sun, To fall and blister!”

This is the landscape which inspired one of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ earliest works, the 1904 orchestral tone poem, In the Fen Country. This music, which the composer described as a “symphonic impression,” is filled with solitary, lamenting voices. Subtle shifts of light and color play against the expansive horizon. Hazy allusions to English folk songs emerge and dissipate. There are moments of celestial beauty. For example, listen for the incredible harmonic progression in the final bars (beginning around 12:08), where the shimmering strings float ever higher while the lower voices descend. Yet, there is also something persistently unsettling about this music—an underlying restlessness, quiet anxiety, deep longing, and sadness. The piece begins with the plaintive, pastoral voice of the English horn, and drifts off into silence with a solitary viola. In the end, In the Fen Country feels ephemeral, like a dream.

Recordings

  • Vaughan Williams: In the Fen Country, Bernard Haitink, London Philharmonic Orchestra www.grooves-inc.com

Photograph: Ely Cathedral, Andrew Sharpe

About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

2 thoughts on “Vaughan Williams’ “In the Fen Country”: A Symphonic Impression”

  1. I really like Vaughan Williams. I’ve noticed that he often uses an up-and-down motif, like in Fen Country at 0:10-0:15. Is there a musical word for that kind of . . . oscillation?

    Reply
    • Yes. Its called melodic shape. And Vaughn Williams makes that a prominent feature of his music. Good ear. Keep listening!

      Reply

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