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Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) - Overture: The Wasps

In 1908, 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. 

The Overture, 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
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


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