Category Archives: Victoria Library

Vaughan Williams at war

BTL adult workshop on Vaughan Williams, Westminster Music Library March 2014It was our local residents’ turn to enjoy Westminster Music Library‘s latest Behind the Lines* music workshop, which featured English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams.

He obviously has a huge fan base in Westminster as this session was packed - one of our best attended workshops so far.

As always, we were joined by musicians from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra on flute, cello and vibraphone, as well as the pleasure of having Vaughan Williams expert Ceri Owen join us.

The musical focus started with A Pastoral Symphony, with the RPO musicians introducing snippets of it to everyone. The third of nine symphonies Vaughan Williams’ wrote, it was composed between 1916 and 1921, and premiered in 1922.  It reflects Vaughan Williams’ experiences in France as a wagon orderly during WW1; it is not (as commonly believed) a reflection of the English countryside. The group went on to debate the similarities between the two landscapes but concluded that they must have differed during war time. The group looked in depth at the modes and tonalities used in the opening of the symphony, comparing it to Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and Stravinksy’s Rite of Spring which use similar patterns.

BTL adult workshop on Vaughan Williams, Westminster Music Library March 2014

The final movement of this symphony includes a wordless soprano line so we learned it as the first interactive group musical activity. In performance, this is often sung by the soprano from a distance to create a sense of space and emptiness, adding a ghostly lament effect to the music that depicts the tragedy of the war. The possible origins of this musical idea were discussed; did they lie in Vaughan Williams interest in the Anglican Church, relating to Gregorian chant? Or in his enthusiasm for English folksong? The discussion also included the validity of the term ‘symphony’ in the case of this piece as it doesn’t conform to traditional symphony structure, similar to the other two descriptive symphonies he wrote - A Sea Symphony and A London Symphony – are they really only extended tone poems?

After a tea break we moved on to look at another work – Sancta Civitas (The Holy City). The musicians demonstrated the mysterious opening section of the work then participants chose various tuned percussion instruments, supported by the cello and piano, and had a go at playing the interesting chords Vaughan Williams uses. We soon ran out of instruments, so the rest of us joined in by singing the melody above the chords, usually played by an oboe. Workshop leader Detta and Ceri demonstrated their conducting skills between instrumentalists and singers.  First attempts were a bit shaky, but with some breathing and relaxation advice from cellist Roberto, the group started to play more comfortably as an ensemble.

Vaughan Williams expert Ceri then filled us in with a bit of background to Sancta Civitas, explaining that it was first performed in Oxford during the General Strike in 1926, an environment far away from the political and economic problems people were facing which had led to the strike, and that this was not easy for Vaughan Williams. She questioned the ambiguity of the music; the text, taken mainly from the Book of Revelation, expresses the triumph of good over evil and is ultimately positive, but much of the music Vaughan Williams composed, including the close of the piece, possibly suggests otherwise.
We then looked at another section of the work. With such interesting discussion between the musicians and participants, which could have happily carried on for a long time (including on the immortality of the soul!), we found ourselves rapidly running out of time. We dispensed with the instruments and quickly learned to sing the mournful descending phrase ‘Babylon the great is fallen’, before putting both this and the opening section together for the grand finale to a very interesting and enjoyable afternoon.

Ralph Vaughan Williams, who opened Westminster Music Library in 1948, believed passionately that composers should be ‘useful’ and that music should be for everyone. We are sure he would have been delighted with the outcome of the afternoon’s activity.

[Jane McConnell]

Behind the Lines: The music and composers of the First World War* Behind the Lines is a year-long programme of participatory events run by Westminster Music Library in partnership with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, to encourage local communities from across Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea to engage with the Library and its collections.
The programme uses the centenary of the First World War as inspiration for a series of interactive workshops and creative projects designed for adult, family and school participants.
There are plenty of music workshops to come for all ages and abilities, check out our website: to find out more.

A walk in the countryside – Vaughan Williams Family Workshops

Early Years

It’s a sunny spring morning in London and the young crowd gather for the very exciting music workshop at Westminster Music Library.  There are lots of sleepy faces, but not for long…

BTL Early Years workshop on Vaughan Williams, Westminster Music Library March 2014

Everyone gets their wake-up call with a very lively and energetic warm up; lots of wobbling, shaking, clapping and moving! Workshop leader Detta then introduces the very talented Royal Philharmonic Orchestra musicians on violin, cello and vibraphone, who then introduce us all to excerpts of Vaughan Williams’ Pastoral Symphony.  ‘Pastoral’ relates to rural scenery and the countryside so we decided to let the music take us on some journeys through different rural settings:

Tthe first musical journey takes us for a walk up a steep, snowy mountain.  It’s hard work so we have to stop at the top for a rest before making our way back down the other side.  The second musical journey then takes us into the park where a squirrel is climbing a tree; it’s autumn so the leaves are lovely and red.  Finally we take a trip to the countryside and the beach where there are lots of sheep and cows.  We’re lucky it’s such a sunny day outside!

Primary Years

Another sleepy, shy group of children, but they are soon full of beans and ready for active music making after a movement, rhythm and vocal warm up. Looking again at Vaughan William’s Pastoral Symphony, the group learn to sing a fragment of the melody from the first movement.

BTL Primary Years workshop on Vaughan Williams, Westminster Music Library March 2014

Following that, the group decide on a new rhythmic idea and pat it out along with the music played by the RPO musicians.  The workshop leader decided it would be a good idea to create music based on different landscapes in memory of Vaughan Williams, who was very much influenced by different places in the world.  The first group stayed in London and portrayed the image of Big Ben in the morning mist with the birds twittering.  Group two took us to the hot Sahara desert, and as they looked across the sand dunes they saw some shepherds with their camels.  Group three took us further south to Antarctica where they played music to represent the enormous glaciers and melting ice.

We were fortunate to have a Vaughan Williams expert join us expert during this session; Ceri has just completed her PhD on Vaughan Williams at Oxford University and was able to answer some questions on his life.  He lived from 1872-1958, and spent a number of years living very near to Westminster Music Library; in Cheyne Walk on the Chelsea Embankment, London.

Ceri was able to answer one of the children’s questions “why did he fight in the war?”, explaining that he felt it was his duty to be a soldier in World War I, but he was too old to fight on the front line. Instead, he was part of the ambulance services, helping other injured soldiers, and he also looked after horses in the war (which may have influenced his Riders to the Sea opera).  He came up with the ideas for the Pastoral Symphony during WW1 whilst in France, and started writing them down when he returned to England. Ceri told us that he was inspired by the landscapes and scenery in France, such as the sunsets.  He also took influences from the military bugle music. So this pastoral symphony actually painted the picture of a dark, ruined, war-zone France instead of pastoral England.  Ceri also explained that Vaughan Williams was very eager to draw attention to the folksongs of England; eliminating the idea that there were none.  In fact, some of the motifs in the Pastoral Symphony were based on English folksongs.

Other questions about the life of Ralph Vaughan Williams included:

  • What did he do in his spare time?
    He liked walking, community music and conducting choirs.
  • What did he play?
    He was organist at a church in Stockwell but he wasn’t very good, he also played the violin.
  • Was he only popular in England?
    He also became famous overseas, particularly in America and Finland (after Sibelius!).
  • Was he a family man?
    His first wife died in 1951, his second died in 2007 and was 30 years younger than him.

As we discovered through these workshops, Vaughan Williams loved to travel and experience different places; much of his music reflected his interest in landscapes and scenery.  We also discovered that he loved his home country – England, as well as France, the New York skyline, Antarctica, and many other places around the world.

[Jane McConnell]

Music with a kiss

The term baroque is derived from the Italian barocco, meaning bizarre, though exuberant would be a much a better way to describe soprano Natalie Montakhab and Il Bacio’s recital in Westminster Music Library last Thursday evening.

Il Bacio perform at Westminster Music Library, March 2014
As a debut solo artist at the BBC Proms in 2011, the Times critic Hilary Finch noted the “wide awake, beautiful soprano voice of Natalie Montakhab”, and judging by her performance for us in the Music Library I suspect our audience would totally agree. Natalie has also sung as soloist with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

Il Bacio perform at Westminster Music Library, March 2014She was accompanied by Ann Allen on baroque oboe and recorder, and Ralph Stelzenmüller on harpsichord, the latter’s extremely delicate and valuable instrument being very carefully transported up to the Music Library especially for our concert.

The recital began with a selection of songs by one of the greatest masters of English baroque music, Henry Purcell. A generation after Purcell came William Croft, who amongst his many compositions wrote suites for harpsichord, a selection of which were played brilliantly for us tonight. Croft was wonderfully innovative in his own right, and achieved the same status in English musical life as Purcell had done. He lived well into the 18th century, and developed a very different style of music which was to influence Handel after he moved to live in England.

Il Bacio perform at Westminster Music Library, March 2014And it was to Handel that Il Bacio turned for the second half of the concert, with a selection of arias from his opera Acis and Galatea. The goddess Galatea impatiently awaits the arrival of her mortal lover, Acis. He is unable to find her, but stumbles upon Damon, his shepherd friend, who tells him that the pursuit of love is fruitless, and that instead he should simply enjoy mortal pleasures. Acis ignores him, and he and Galatea are united in an atmosphere of exultant love. A perfect finale to an exclusive evening of baroque delights for a very appreciative audience:

“Absolutely fantastic. It’s great to hear baroque in such an intimate setting.”

“A very enjoyable programme, the harpsichord was exquisite”

“Excellent and very relaxed, incredible music in a lovely space.”


Strings attached

Bridge event at Westminster Music Library, March 2014
A warm Westminster Music Library welcome was given to a group of budding violinists from Churchill Gardens Primary School, who came to entertain an equally appreciative audience of children from St Peter’s Eaton Square Primary School and Thomas’s Nursery in Pimlico.

Our young musicians have been learning the violin for just over a year as part of The Bridge Project – an educational initiative which identifies and nurtures young children who might not otherwise have the opportunity to learn to play musical instruments at a high level. The project encourages children, their families and their communities to develop a life-long appreciation for classical music in all its varied forms. The project aims to reach out to children from broader communities, preparing them to participate and succeed in the world of classical music.

And clearly learning an instrument can also equal having great fun while you’re doing it! The concert involved singing as well as playing, a variety of well known tunes and a lot of audience participation.

Once the applause subsided, it was time to put these budding fiddle players to the test… Did they know who Beethoven was – other than being a bit deaf and very grumpy? How about Handel? That chap with the long, flowing hair (I think that could be a wig) – did he play the organ in church? The granddaddy of them all – JS Bach – who had twenty children and spent a few nights in jail for not paying his bills. And we must not forget Mozart, the one and only child superstar who if you played his entire musical repertoire one piece after another it would take eight days.

These young performers proved that learning the violin is a lot more than just hours of learning a lot of boring scales, it is also about having a really good time. Roll over Beethoven, The Bridge violinists are coming.


Libraries are good for your health!

Barry from the Stroke Association gives a blood pressure check to an older dancerIt’s been a while since we’ve had a post from the Health Project – but that doesn’t mean it’s faded away. Far from it – it’s expanded to a full timetable of health promotion events in all three boroughs.

In fact there are so many events and activities happening on that it’s been difficult to get back from the front line and report!

Here’s just a taster of what’s been going on recently. Take a look at the Health events page and you can see that there are regular events and check ups for you to go to, special events for focus days like National No Smoking Day, and stalls popping up at all manner of locations!

Health Trainer Miraf, an Arabic-speaking health trainer who managed to do 44 health checks at Church Street Library in FebruaryThe project has arranged for Health Trainers to perform their government/NHS commissioned health checks for those between 40 and 74 in libraries. They come to Church Street Library on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, (including male nurse David Preston’s health checks for men of all ages), Victoria Library on Thursdays and  Fridays, and David goes to Pimlico Library on Friday mornings.

These health checks are vital for diagnosing early onset heart disease and the client/patient gets a result there and then and can be referred to the appropriate service (eg: exercise referral) or to their GP.

Breathe Easy Group Paddington

March Tea DanceThe health project has delivered two talks to community groups recently and the Breathe Easy Group Paddington are pictured above. The other was the over 60′s club at the Abbey Centre  – both groups were upset they couldn’t have a health check with a health trainer if they are over the age of 74, so we invited the Stroke Association (who have no upper age limit) to do the blood pressure checks at the tea dance at the Porchester Centre. We made an announcement to invite Paddington library users to go upstairs to where the dance was in full swing and mix with the dancers, see the hall and have a blood pressure check – 42 people did!