Vaughan Williams’ “Sinfonia Antartica”: From Film Score to Symphony

In a 1944 essay titled Film Music, Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote, “I still believe that the film contains potentialities for the combination of all the arts such as Wagner never dreamt of.” Beginning in 1940, Vaughan Williams composed scores for eleven films. Among these was the 1948 Technicolor adventure film, Scott of the Antarctic, which told the story of the ill-fated 1912 British expedition to Antarctica, led by Captain Robert Falcon Scott. The venture went south …

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Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis”: Ghosts of the English Renaissance

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis is filled with ghosts. Composed in 1910, this haunting single-movement work for string orchestra develops from a melody written nearly 400 years earlier by the English Renaissance composer, Thomas Tallis. Tallis’ hymn melody, one of nine written in 1567 for the Archbishop of Canterbury, is tinged with a sense of quiet mystery and lament. With continuous harmonic and metric shifts, it feels mysterious …

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Vaughan Williams’ “Silent Noon”: Serene, Pastoral Bliss

The music of Ralph Vaughan Williams returns frequently to the serene, pastoral majesty of “England’s green and pleasant land.” We hear these shimmering, sensuous allusions in Vaughan Williams’ 1903 song, Silent Noon. The song, which was later incorporated into the cycle, The House of Life, is a setting of a dreamy sonnet by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The poem evokes a kind of blissful harmony with nature, experienced by two lovers on a summer day amid the “long …

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Vaughan Williams’ “A London Symphony”: Ode to an Ephemeral City

Ralph Vaughan Williams recalled that the impetus for A London Symphony came during a fleeting conversation with fellow English composer, George Butterworth: At the end of the evening, just as he was getting up to go, he said, in his characteristically abrupt way, ‘You know, you ought to write a symphony.’ From that moment the idea of a symphony – a thing which I had always declared I would never attempt – dominated my …

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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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