Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
‘O thou transcendent’ Tony Palmer’s film of the life
of Vaughan Williams.
Musical excerpts performed
by Nicola Benedetti (violin), Hungarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Tamas
Vasary, National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain/Sian Edwards
Directed and edited by Tony Palmer.
Sound format Stereo.
Picture format NTSC 16:9.
Region code 0 (worldwide). TONY PALMER FILMS
sees the 50th anniversary of the death of Ralph
Vaughan Williams. UK TV Channel 5 lost no time in commemorating
it with this film by Tony Palmer, transmitted at 9 am on
New Year’s Day. Its DVD release can be enjoyed at any hour
and viewed in portions as you wish. Interestingly its ‘chapters’ are
usually identified by specific works discussed and featured,
though there’s no direct mention of RVW’s music in the title.
This is because the life is largely considered in relation
to the music.
thou transcendent’ is an excellent banner title, though if
you don’t know the quote you’ll have to wait until 46:01
into the film (tr. 10, continuous timing) for its context.
It’s from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, the collection
of poems from which RVW made a selection for his Sea Symphony. The
particular focus here is the soul’s journey through life
into the unknown, an exploration of much of RVW’s music,
as the quote from him in this film states, “even if you didn’t
believe in God, there was something beyond, something mysterious”,
looking past the immediate to the expanse.
is Palmer’s fourth film on 20th century English
composers. As with his films on Britten (1979), Walton (1980)
and Arnold (2003), there are two distinct characteristics.
Firstly a generous presentation of works in performance,
secondly a focus on the cost to the composer of creating
those works. We hear about RVW’s doubts about his music,
meetings with other composers and critics, his own revisions.
Michael Kennedy says RVW never believed a work was finished.
This is the negative aspect of the positive one that RVW
always retained a vision and sought new ways of articulating
it, for instance using vibraphone in Symphony 8 and, not
mentioned in the film, flugelhorn in Symphony 9. Adrian Boult
regrets the large cut made in the finale of Symphony 2. Palmer
missed the opportunity of interviewing Richard Hickox, who
made the only recording of its original version and prefers
this. It’s certainly more experimental, original and bleak.
also enjoys a little cherchez la femme. Symphony 4’s
violence, we’re told, isn’t that of war but RVW’s rage against
his invalid first wife Adeline. Symphony 5’s serenity is
the outcome of his affair with Ursula, later to become his
second wife. Doubtless these are significant elements but
not the whole story. In the film Michael Kennedy says a friend
told RVW his Symphony 4 was a self-portrait, a more astute
observation. Kennedy also refers to the links between Symphony
5 and The Pilgrim’s Progress and the latter work’s
centrality to RVW’s creativity throughout his life.
has a particular mission regarding RVW which he makes explicit
in the leaflet accompanying the DVD: “to explode for ever
the image of a cuddly old Uncle, endlessly recycling English
folk songs”. To do this there’s an emphasis, in the commentaries
at least, on the dark side of his music. Fortunately the
music examples themselves and Palmer’s visual skill as a
film-maker offer a more rounded experience. This starts with The
lark ascending (tr. 1 1:16), flowing, warm and cosy,
yes, but I was struck also by its sheer beauty. Nicola Benedetti
performing it helps. Even in an extract of just 2:16 there’s
also a musing, questioning quality to it as well as a sense
of spaciousness and serenity. We see no lark but the camera
ascends over the landscape and we’re literally transported.
So here’s ‘O thou transcendent’ visually, the free-floating
spirit reaching beyond everyday capability.
stark contrast of Symphony 4 certainly emphasises RVW’s bleaker
side. Stephen Johnson alludes to the appearance of the Dies
irae in the finale, notably in the trombones at tr. 2
6:19 in a four note motif that appears in all movements.
Unlike Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique it’s neither
a direct nor full quotation, but you could say it’s a cousin
and the notion this creates of the close of Symphony 4 being
a kind of 20th century witches Sabbath is attractive.
The unusual layout of the Hungarian Radio Symphony Orchestra,
phalanxes of players sheenily front-lit facing each other
as in battle, adds to this impression. The performance, directed
by a grim-visaged Tamas Vasary full of intensity, with the
occasional rough edge, if anything, boosts the effect. They
also feature in symphonies 7 and 9. Here I should point out
in a section on RVW’s film music that there’s footage from Scott
of the Antarctic and then the caption Symphony No. 7
comes up (tr. 20 100:44) without any explanation that
the symphony is a separate work, some of whose themes were
from music written for the film.
from symphonies 2, 5, 6, 8, the Tallis fantasia, Norfolk
rhapsody, Job and Dives and Lazarus are played
by the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain/Sian Edwards;
very fittingly given that RVW helped in setting it up. Here’s
the same unusual lighting and layout, but the effect is different.
Precision of ensemble and articulation is as fine as any
professional orchestra’s yet there’s an overall smoothness
that takes some of the edge from the music. The more cantabile aspects
of RVW, the big tunes like that at the end of the first movement
of Symphony 6 or the Pavane of the Sons of the Morning in Job come
off best. Satan’s dance, in the same work, is a bit
lacking in venom. The ‘chapter’ on Job (tr. 18) is
instructive in that the visuals of the ballet look more dated,
with less sinewy agony and ecstasy than the music which seems
closer to the inspiration of Blake’s illustrations also shown.
And here’s RVW succeeding at both grim and serene music in
a work where both for once are on display in this film.
5 is featured in a benign performance of the opening of the
slow movement by Adrian Boult (tr. 23 116:28) with care and
shaping evident. But Michael Kennedy’s commentary, “tinged
with a great sadness, but that again makes you begin to wonder
why” (116:46) is needlessly enigmatic, again to emphasise
RVW’s dark side. Kennedy knows why, because he points out
in his introduction to the Eulenburg miniature score that
the cor anglais theme is that sung in The Pilgrim’s Progress to
Bunyan’s text “He hath given me rest by his sorrow, and life
by his death”. I hope whoever owns this Boult video will
release the symphony complete on DVD to join his Symphony
8 already available (EMI DVB 38845690). This is the only
RVW on DVD before Palmer apart from the anthem Let all
the world performed by King’s College Cambridge Choir/Stephen
Cleobury (Opus Arte OA 0835 D).
discussing the Tallis Fantasia I feel the determination
to show a severe RVW goes over the top. Stephen Johnson states “Tallis
hymn begins ‘When rising from the bed of death’” (tr. 11
50:39). The hymn Tallis set was Why fumeth in fight?, a
metrical version of Psalm 2 which is about conflict and dissent
but not directly death. The words Johnson quotes are those
of Addison’s poem and RVW chose Tallis’s tune to set to these
for the English hymnal. In this film its first two
verses are sung by Gloucester Cathedral Choir/Andrew Nethsingha
(47:56). But death isn’t the focus of this poem, just the
starting point for the exploration of contrition and realization
of redemption in the sixth verse, another form of ‘O thou
transcendent’. Johnson becomes more fanciful still in suggesting
the Tallis Fantasia, composed in 1910, is a lament
for a world changed by World War I. The RVW work which artistically
provides that and conveys both change and regeneration is A
Pastoral Symphony, which isn’t mentioned at all in this
film, perhaps because this 1921 work is felt to be an early,
a good deal of focus in the film on the sort of man RVW was
and his continual activity in the development of music and
humanitarian projects. There’s a host of contemporary witnesses
with recent and archival footage skilfully blended. This
is valuable and includes some unexpected insights. For instance,
Brian Kay’s enthusiasm in rehearsing Messiah (tr.
14) gives you a real feel for RVW’s active involvement for
48 years in music-making at the Leith Hill Music Festival.
Jill Balcon says “we none of us know what goes on within
because the creative process is beyond most of us” (tr. 20
102:49), another aspect of transcendency, but adds that we
all have an inner life. I’d say the main clues lie in the
music’s variety of manner and mood.
does not make comfortable viewing” states Palmer’s note.
This is sometimes more a matter of image and statement than
music. A Sea Symphony is illustrated (tr. 10) partly
by storms though it doesn’t contain any storm like Britten’s
in Peter Grimes. Symphony 9 is accompanied by harrowing
footage of famine in Africa. I take it Palmer is saying this
is a contemporary visual equivalent to the force of RVW’s
music, looking into the depths of human existence and questioning
how to respond. But there’s still something unseemly about
this blending of an artistic construct, emotion recollected
in tranquillity, and the raw emotion of reality. In similar
sensational style Stephen Johnson talks about RVW as an ambulance
man in World War 1 “picking up an eye, a bit of a leg, half
a head” though RVW himself, with more respect and dignity,
never spoke about these experiences. However, it’s fair to
infer that he exorcised them in his music. Johnson appropriately
refers to the repeated two chords in the epilogue of Symphony
6 “like an Amen that doesn’t resolve”. As presented here
this is a purely nihilistic RVW ending, yet RVW’s own nearest
match in words of “our little life is rounded by a sleep” seems
commentary the film bows out with the bleak eloquence of
the opening movement of Symphony 9 graphically portrayed
by Tamas Vasary. This is a selective picture. Turn to this
symphony’s second movement and you’ll find an exploratory
vision as well as some conflict, then tenderness and compassion
in its central melody, an all-embracing strength of climax
and serene close. The third movement scherzo has banter.
Where’s RVW’s humour in this film? The finale is at least
ambivalent and seeks to be affirmative. This range is what
makes RVW’s music continue to attract. But I’m illustrating
the greatest strength of Palmer’s film: its provocation.
It forces you to consider and seek to articulate your own
response to RVW. This is what makes it stimulating, yes irritating
too, but ultimately rewarding and memorable.
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