Let Beauty Awake is the fourth collaboration between the Elgar and the Vaughan Williams Societies. Previous ventures included the seminars ‘Elgar and Vaughan Williams in the New Century’, ‘A Special Flame’ and ‘The best of me...’ The present volume is based on the symposium that was held at the British Library on 22-23 November 2008. This was an exploration of the place and importance of poetry in the lives, and naturally the music, of both composers. The guest of honour for the sessions was the late Richard Hickox, who has been such a great friend to all who love British music. The event had been timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Vaughan Williams’ death in 1958. In 2004 a collection of essays based on the seminar A Special Flame had been published: it was to be the precedent for the present volume.
Although there are a goodly number of books about Vaughan Williams and Elgar, there are relatively few that deal with the composers’ approach to literature. One honourable exception is Edward Elgar: Music and Literature, edited by Raymond Monk. For Vaughan Williams the field is more limited, apart from a few of the essays in Vaughan Williams Studies edited by Alain Frogley, who is incidentally one of the contributors to the present volume. So this book fills a gap in the studies of both composers: it presents information in a scholarly way, but not in a manner that demands a doctorate in musicology.
After the necessary introduction there are two main elements in this book – Part 1: ‘Vaughan Williams and others’ and Part 2: ‘Vaughan Williams and the Poets’. Out of the ten essays printed here nine are transcripts of the papers delivered at the symposium. The tenth is based on a lecture given by Julian Rushton at a one-day seminar in New York. At the end of the book is an ‘Epilogue’ by the great British music scholar Michael Kennedy. And finally, after the usual offices of index and notes on the contributors there is an enclosed CD of the entire interview between Stephen Connock and Richard Hickox. This is a major coup for the publishers of this book and is enjoyable, informative and often humorous.
The first essay slightly expands the remit: it proposes to examine the ‘formative part played by Hubert Parry.’ Parry’s influence was two-fold – through his music and equally vitally, his writings on the history and aesthetics of music.
Stephen Johnson then poses the question ‘Could it be that Elgar’s literary taste was simply defective?’ This suggestion is based on a presumption by some critics that the composer’s choice of texts was generally pretty poor. This observation includes such masterpieces as The Dream of Gerontius, The Music Makers and Sea Pictures. And how could the libretto of The Starlight Express inspire any great music? Was it a creative challenge that Elgar set himself: tackling poetry that was not of the first rank? Perhaps there was a reason that Elgar chose not to set ‘great poetry?’ Michael Tippett once said that ‘the music of a song destroys the verbal music of a poem utterly.’ Maybe Edward Elgar wished to keep the ‘original music’ of these great poems intact?
Andrew Neill explores how Elgar and RVW responded to the momentous events engendered by the Great War and considers the musical response. He concludes by noting the sense of solace found in the closing bars of ‘For the Fallen’ and the slow movement of the Piano Quintet. He suggests that Vaughan Williams gave ‘us music of consolation and aspiration’, somehow achieving, as Binyon put it, ‘a glory that shone upon all our tears’’ in the great Fifth Symphony.
I enjoyed David Owen Norris’ essay on Falstaff. It is a work that I have often had difficulty with. I love the music and I like the Shakespearean protagonist, but somehow I have always felt a little unconvinced when Elgar put the two together into his ‘study’. I am not sure that my response to this work has been resolved by this essay, but it has certainly given me some new insights into the music and its genesis.
The first essay I actually read was Philip Lancaster and his analysis of the ‘remarkable influence of A.E. Housman.’ All RVW enthusiasts will know and love On Wenlock Edge and Along the Field, which are two of the greatest song-cycles in British music. This is a useful study of these two works. Two other essays on individual poets examine the influence on Vaughan Williams of the great American poet Walt Whitman (Sea Symphony and Dona Nobis Pacem) by Alain Frogley and the importance of Shakespeare and Elizabethan poetry (Serenade to Music and Sir John in Love).
I enjoyed Hugh Cobbe’s musings on the ‘relationship with literature as it emerges from his correspondence’. The composer quotes in his letters authors as varied and diverse as the Bible and Mervyn Peake. Cobbe is the editor of The Letters of Ralph Vaughan Williams (1895-1958).
But perhaps the most important essay in this book is ‘While the Moon Shines Gold’ by Roger Savage. In effect it is an overview of all the literature that was in RVW’s literary landscape. Savage posits three ‘circles’ of writers – the first are those who died before 1890 and include Chaucer, Shakespeare, Skelton, Spenser and Bunyan. The second circle includes those authors who were working when Vaughan Williams was in his formative years – these include Walt Whitman, Thomas Hardy, Robert Louis Stevenson and Housman. Finally there is the third circle – writers who were personal friends, relations and collaborators: Fredegond Shove (Four Poems), Evelyn Sharp (The Poisoned Kiss) and his wife Ursula Wood.
There were two things that I felt could have helped the reader. Firstly, it would have been great to have had a CD of the musical examples cited in the text and played at the seminar. However, I do accept that there would have been copyright issues aplenty if this had been done. Furthermore, I imagine that most readers of this book will have all these extracts on CD or on their iPods. So perhaps, after all, it is no big deal. And secondly, I would have liked a transcript of the excellent interview with Maestro Hickox. It would have been a valuable reference work.
The format of the book is good: I was delighted with the appearance and the feel of the volume. However, I did wonder if a paperback or limp cover would have sufficed? Yet at the price: £10 for members of either society or £15 for the rest of the world, it is excellent value. The book is printed on good quality paper and is well-bound. Included in the text are a number of fine photographs which seem to be quite rare and add immensely to the intrinsic value of the book – for example, I had never seen a picture of the poet Fredegond Shove before. There are a few musical examples scattered throughout the first nine essays, but if the reader cannot hear them in their heads it does not devalue the argument. However, the most technical essay is the last on ‘Triadic Magic’ which has a fair number of examples along with tables of ‘triadic connections.’
Book reviews often finish with a recommendation as to whether the volume should be bought or not. There is no doubt that this book is essential to all students and scholars of Elgar and Vaughan Williams’ music. But the book will reach a wider target: anyone who has lived with and loved the music of these two composers over the years will be fascinated to read about the poetical element of the music and this will surely add value to their listening pleasure. It is a fine contribution to the scholarship of Sir Edward Elgar and Dr. Ralph Vaughan Williams: it is erudition that can be understood and appreciated by lovers of music who are not professional musicologists: yet this ‘professional’ group will also be satisfied by the depth of learning and understanding in these pages. In this sense it is an essential purchase.
1. Parry, Elgar, and Vaughan Williams: influences and aspirations - Michael Pope
2. Elgar's literary choice - Stephen Johnson
3. There is music in the midst of desolation - Andrew Neill
4. Character as form: Elgar's Falstaff - David Owen Norris
5. Vaughan Williams and literature: an overview - Roger Savage
6. 'The full juiced apple': literary furniture in Vaughan Williams’ letters - Hugh Cobbe
7. 'O Farther Sail': Vaughan Williams and Whitman - Alain Frogley
8. 'Music in the Air': Vaughan Williams, Shakespeare, and the construction of an Elizabethan Tradition - Byron Adams
9. 'They tolled the one bell only': the remarkable influence of A.E. Housman - Philip Lancaster
10. 'Triadic magic': the numinous in early works of Vaughan Williams - Julian Rushton
11. Epilogue: 'The light we sought is shining still' - Michael Kennedy
12. CD: Stephen Connock talks to Richard Hickox