Vaughan Williams’ “The Wasps” Overture: Raising the Curtain on Stinging Satire

In 1909, the Cambridge Greek Play committee invited Ralph Vaughan Williams to compose incidental music for a production of Aristophanes’ comic satire, The Wasps. The play, first produced in 422 B.C., is a caustic commentary on the Athenian judiciary system. Vaughan Williams’ music, later arranged in a suite, includes the witty March Past of the Kitchen Utensils. A year earlier, Vaughan Williams spent three months in Paris studying with Maurice Ravel. Later, Ravel commented that Vaughan Williams …

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Three English Phantasies: Music of Vaughan Williams, Purcell, and Britten

The fantasia is a genre which spans more than four hundred years of English music. It flowered in the Renaissance and Baroque periods, with the viol consort music of composers such as William Byrd, John Jenkins, and Henry Purcell. Emerging from the word fancy, these compositions are free in form and feature an intricate, polyphonic dialogue between instruments. A predecessor to sonata form, the fantasia grew out of madrigals and vocal motets. Twentieth …

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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 …

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Vaughan Williams’ “Serenade to Music”: “Such Harmony is in Immortal Souls”

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music was conceived in 1938 as a tribute to the conductor, Sir Henry Wood. The piece endures as a shimmering and sensuous celebration of music itself, set to the majestic words of Shakespeare. The work’s Royal Albert Hall premiere, commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Woods’ first concert, was a uniquely collective musical celebration. The ensemble included members from three major London orchestras (the LSO, LPO, and BBC Symphony), …

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Le Tombeau de Couperin: Post-Apocalyptic Ravel

Listening to Maurice Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, it’s easy to get a sense of altered reality. Outwardly, the original six movement suite, written for solo piano, responds to the horrors and devastation of the First World War, a conflict Ravel experienced first hand as a military ambulance driver. Ravel dedicated each movement of the work, written between 1914 and 1917, to the memory of a friend lost on the battlefield. But, interestingly, …

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Vaughan Williams’ Pastoral Symphony: Nature’s Lament

  With a title like A Pastoral Symphony, you might expect Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Third Symphony, completed in 1922, to evoke bubbling brooks and the quiet hedgerows of England’s “green and pleasant land.” But listen, and you’ll hear music which, instead, suggests a melancholy alienation from nature. The music feels strangely hazy and shell-shocked. Its pastures are the battlefields of the First World War, not the bucolic scenes of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony or a Schubert …

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