Simon Coombs, the Chair of the Vaughan Williams Society, gave an extremely interesting and informative talk on the music of Vaughan Williams to a packed room at the last Society meeting on Monday. Regarded as one of Britain’s great composers, he produced a wide range of music, including songs, symphonies, choral works, chamber music and works with a religious theme. He was what one might call a ‘late developer’ not finding his voice until his ’30s (reminiscent of Bruckner).
Simon took us through his history starting with his childhood in Down Ampney and his later life in Dorking (Surrey) and Chelsea. He showed promise at school, composing a short piece called ‘The Robin’ aged 6. Later he went on to study under Parry and Max Bruch. He spent time in Paris studying with Maurice Ravel who said of him ‘he was the only one of my students who doesn’t try to write my music’.
He was keenly interested in folk music and started to collect these in 1903. He was not the first composer to be
influenced by the folk song tradition (one thinks of Bartok) and much of his early work was founded on this tradition. He was friendly with George Butterworth who shared his passion for English folk songs and who offered advice to VW in his early days including suggesting that he write a symphony. It is a surprising fact but there are no performed symphonies by a British composer before VW and Elgar. The suggestion by Butterworth is therefore something of a revolutionary suggestion. Butterworth died tragically young in the Great War. VW was keen to contribute to the war and served as an ambulance driver and stretcher bearer. Like many who served in the trenches, the War made a lasting impression including the loss of friends.
He was keen to popularise his music and started the Leith Hill Music Festival (near Dorking) in 1905 and which still thrives. He had a huge output which included 9 symphonies.
Simon played a mixture of his works, some familiar, others less often heard. These included the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis; an extract from the Sea Symphony (1909); a song from 5 Mystical Songs; parts of the London Symphony (1913) and the Pastoral Symphony (1921) and from number 4 (1934).
Perhaps the work most recognisably as his is the Lark Ascending strongly influenced by his love of folk songs (1914). Other pieces included an extract from the English Folk Song Suite (1923), Serenade to Music (1938) and from one of his operas Hugh the Drover. He was approached by Muir Mathieson to compose the music for the film Thirty Ninth Parallel which he composed in a matter of weeks.
This was a brilliant start to the second half of the season.
The music of James Oswald, described as the ‘Scottish Orpheus’
James Oswald was born in the little town of Crail, Fife and started life as a dancing master in Dunfermline. He spent time in Edinburgh and
then went to London and started to compose music based on Scottish tunes then the rage in the 1740’s. He set up shop near St Martin’s Churchyard and this became a meeting place for expatriate Scots. He developed his links with the English aristocracy and was appointed Chamber Composer by George III.
We were delighted to welcome Jeremy Barlow to the meeting, an authority on this period of music. Jeremy is one of the most versatile musicians on the British early music scene, with a career encompassing writing, lecturing, and performing. After studying at Trinity College Cambridge and the Royal Academy of Music, London, his first job was as flutist with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra.
But what characterises Scottish music and makes it so recognisable? The basic reason is that it is based on the pentatonic scale not the normal 7 note scale we are used to. It also has a base accompaniment which is a chord which only changes one note at a time as the melody progresses. The third feature is something called the ‘Scotch Snap’, a short accented note before a longer note. These combine to give Scottish music its particular sound.
As an introduction, Jeremy played the Birthday Ode for Queen Mary composed in 1692 by Henry Purcell. This uses a Scottish tune in the base line. We also heard contemporary examples by William McGibbon; Francesco Geminiani and Alexander Erskine, Earl of Kelly. The main part of the evening was music by Oswald which included Airs for the Seasons, the curiously named Dust Cart Cantata and the Divertimento No. 8 for English guitar. Jeremy Barlow directed the Broadside Band in Airs for all the Seasons, Oswald’s finest work.
Oswald became particularly friendly with John Robinson-Lytton the owner of Knebworth House in Hertfordshire. After Robinson-Lytton died he married his widow and moved into Knebworth, he had surely come a long way.
An interesting evening concerning the work of a composer few would be familiar with.
I am indebted to the notes provided by Jeremy in writing this piece
Next meeting 13 November which is a members’ evening so please let Tony Powell know what your choice is.
Our next meeting on Monday 24th April celebrates the music of the English composer Frederick Delius. We are pleased to welcome Martin Lee-Browne to the Society who is from the Delius Society and will be coming down from the Midlands to speak to us and play some of his works.
Normal start at 7.30 and details of where we are can be found at the top of the page. It is £3 for non-members. Parking is easy and the room is accessible for people with disabilities. We look forward to seeing you.
The next meeting of Salisbury Recorded Music Society, will be tonight Monday 4th April 2016 at 7.30pm, in our usual venue. Richard Seal will be presenting In Flanders Fields – music inspired by World War I including works by Vaughan Williams, Britten and George Butterworth. A great deal of attention is paid to the poets who were affected by the war, rather less attention is paid to the composers who were also strongly influenced by the carnage.
The first evening of the new programme started on Monday with Michael Salmon asking ‘is this another English
renaissance?’ After the deaths of Elgar, Vaughan-Williams, Delius and Britten, new British music has often appeared to lack direction and to a certain extent quality. However, since 1950, there has been a significant change and Michael will be looking at a group of modern British composers whose music, although always intensely lyrical, appears, in many cases to follow the 19th century French School with its harmony, impressionism and minimalism.
Note this was a change to the published programme.