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]

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