Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) - Overture: The Wasps
already in his mid-thirties, Vaughan Williams spent three months in Paris
studying orchestral technique under Ravel. Up until then he had composed
little apart from a few songs prompted by his interest in collecting English
folk songs, and a couple of orchestral pieces (both subsequently revised).
At the time, though, he was wrestling with his exceedingly ambitious First
Symphony. Maybe this precipitated his retreat to Paris, feeling as
he did that his “sound” was too impenetrable and lacklustre, and anxious
to “acquire a little French polish”. Soon afterwards (1909), he was invited
to write incidental music for a Cambridge University production of Aritosphanes'
caustic satire on Athenian judiciary, the eponymous “Wasps”. This, effectively
his first venture into incidental music (for plays, radio programmes and
films), contains astonishingly accomplished orchestral writing in which
the obvious influence of the French magician is married to a rotund, expansive,
thoroughly English humour. Ravel recalled that VW was “the only one of
my pupils who does not write my music”. Well, neither did the ruggedly
individualistic VW make any concessions to ancient Greece: the Overture
shares with the rest of the “Aristophanic Suite” (and presumably
the whole of the incidental music) a flavour as far removed from ancient
Greece as Down Ampney is from Athens.
hugely popular (mind, the rest of the Suite is no less entertaining!),
contains one little formal conundrum. Emerging from the menacing buzzing
of the Athenian judiciary, the perky first subject is quintessentially
“Olde Englishe”, leading smoothly into a vigorously fluid second subject
- or does it? This could just as easily be a folksong-like “verse
and chorus”. Not to worry, some brief, waspish first-time bars let us enjoy
the “puzzle” all over again. The perky tune takes off the heat for a long
central episode on a seductively curvaceous third (or second?) subject.
A truncated da capo brings in a brief development of the first tune,
neatly varied from perky to skipping, and involving a broad counter-melody.
The music boils up into a varied reprise of the first (two?) subject(s?),
the third (second?) reappears in perfect counterpoint with the perky tune,
before “verse” and “chorus” plunge onwards for an invigorating coda. One
tune, or two? You tell me!
© Paul Serotsky
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