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: http://www.musicbehindthelines.org/ to find out more.

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