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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958) Beyond my Dream: Music for Greek Plays The Bacchae: Thou immaculate on high [11:47} Electra: Onward O labouring tread [13:50]
O for the ships of Troy [6:54] Iphigenia in Tauris (Realised from short score by Alan Tongue)
Heather Lowe (mezzo-soprano); Joyful Company of Singers (ladies’ voices); Britten Sinfonia/Alan Tongue
rec. 2017, St. Jude-on-the-Hill, London. DDD
English texts included ALBION RECORDS ALBCD033 [62:44]
From the 1880s onwards both Oxford and Cambridge universities regularly staged Greek plays in the original language. Vaughan Williams famously wrote the incidental music for a Cambridge production of The Wasps by Aristophanes in 1909. As the splendid recording of the complete music by Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé demonstrated, it was a substantial score (review). This important new release from Albion Records brings us hitherto unknown music that VW composed for projected performances of some other Greek plays.
Some background is essential and for this I draw on the comprehensive booklet essay jointly authored by John Francis, Alan Tongue and Robin Darwall-Smith. Central to this tale is George Gilbert Aimé Murray (1866-1957). Murray was a distinguished scholar of Ancient Greek who held the Regius Professorship in Greek at Oxford University between 1908 and 1936. He became acquainted with VW through his friendship with Herbert Fisher whose sister, Adeline, became VW’s first wife. Murray translated a number of plays by Euripides into English verse and in the early twentieth century several of these plays achieved performances in London and elsewhere.
Paraphrasing the story considerably, in 1911 and 1912 VW wrote some music for three of Murray’s translated plays: The Bacchae; Electra; and Iphigenia in Tauris. He was prompted to do this not just by Murray but also by Isadora Duncan with whom VW had become friendly. She particularly urged VW to make a musical setting of a chorus from The Bacchae to which she could dance. In the end Duncan never danced to any of VW’s music though it may be that at least some of the music here recorded achieved a concert performance in London in 1912. I can find no reference to these projects in Michael Kennedy’s The Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams. In her biography of VW, Ursula Vaughan Williams refers just briefly to VW’s friendship with Isadora Duncan and her brother and states that in 1911 VW “started work on a choral ballet using Gilbert Murray’s translation of The Bacchae.” A little later in her narrative she records that in 1912 members of the Palestrina Society, a group of which VW had become the conductor “sang through new works for him, from manuscript parts, including the ill-fated choral ballet, The Bacchae, of which only one choral number, ‘Where is the home for me?’ survived into publication.” Ursula makes no further reference to this or any other Euripides project. I learned from the booklet that Where is the home for me? was published in 1923 as a duet for soprano and mezzo with piano accompaniment.
In all honesty, it would be unsurprising if these Greek play projects had fallen down VW’s order of priorities, especially after Isadora Duncan had faded from the scene, because he was very busy in these years. Works from this period include the Five Mystical Songs and Fantasia on Christmas Carols. Furthermore, he was at work on Hugh the Drover and the ‘London’ Symphony lay just around the corner.
The music for these three plays fell into complete obscurity and when in 1919 Gilbert Murray asked VW for the music for The Bacchae he was told that the only legible copy was lost. Recently, Alan Tongue came across the music in the British Library and, having received the necessary permissions, was commissioned by Albion Records to prepare performing editions. A good deal of material, including orchestral parts in another hand, existed for the The Bacchae and Electra. Iphigenia in Tauris presented more of a challenge because only the vocal parts and a short score survived. Alan Tongue has realised the surviving material for performance. It seems to me that, heard against the other two scores, his work on Iphigenia is completely convincing
VW’s music is less elaborate than the music he composed for The Wasps. For one thing, there is far less of it; Murray, it seems, wanted the music to be limited so as not to distract from or impede the flow of the plays. The scoring is more restrained than for The Wasps. You won’t hear the full orchestral forces present in that score. Instead, VW essentially restricted himself to strings, woodwind and harp. On the other hand, unlike The Wasps, these scores are essentially vocal works with orchestral accompaniment.
What of the music? Well, I don’t believe that what we hear alters in any way our understanding of VW. However, Michael Kennedy has pointed out that within the period 1907-14, during which these sets of incidental music were composed, “there emerged the Vaughan Williams whose distinctive voice was heeded at once by his contemporaries.” Alan Tongue has already enabled us to hear VW’s A Cambridge Mass (1897-99), a score composed as his submission for his Cambridge Universality doctorate. When I reviewed that recording I commented thus: “I think anyone listening to this work ‘blind’ would be unlikely to recognise the composer: for instance, it contains little of the harmonic language that was to be in evidence not many years later in A Sea Symphony. In truth, the musical language is indebted to such composers as Brahms and Schumann….and, unsurprisingly, Parry and Stanford have left their mark too.” The same verdict cannot be applied to these scores. For one thing, by 1911/12 VW was a much more experienced composer who had found his authentic voice. Furthermore, he was not constrained, as he had been when writing the Mass, by any academic regulations. I think anyone who hears just a couple of minutes of any of these scores will recognise VW as the composer, not least through the use of modal harmony and also, especially in the Iphigenia music, the influence of folk song.
For The Bacchae VW set just the first choral song in Euripides’ play. The soloist is the Leader of the Chorus and her opening music is quite intense. When the full complement of ladies begins to sing their music is ethereal at first but soon becomes more animated. I found both the vocal and orchestral writing very convincing and the eloquence of the music held my attention.
Two passages from Electra were set. Here the soloist takes the role of Electra herself and the first number, ‘Onward O labouring tread’, begins as an extensive solo. Here the passages of sung music are interspersed with sections in which Electra speaks. In these sections the speaker is either supported by just a single sustained string chord or speaks without any music behind her. I don’t believe I’ve previously encountered the mezzo Heather Lowe but she makes a very positive impression, not only as Electra but throughout the disc. Here, her singing of Electra’s words is patrician yet impassioned. I liked her spoken delivery too; she’s clear and expressive in declaiming the lines. Whether as a singer or a speaker her diction is admirably clear. When she sings I like the sound of her voice very much. About halfway through the ladies of the chorus join in and the female voices of the Joyful Company of Singers make a very good job of their music, singing with clear, fresh tone that’s ideally suited to the music. Here and in the Iphigenia music there are a number of short solo passages to be sung by chorus members. The various soloists drawn from the Joyful Company all acquit themselves very well. The second number, ‘O for the ships of Troy’ is for choir and orchestra. There’s a good deal of feeling in VW’s writing for the choir while the orchestral contribution is very pleasing to hear.
The music for Iphigenia in Tauris is the most extensive; VW set all but one of the choruses in the play. The Prelude, though not heavily scored, is quite imposing. This number is almost entirely orchestral; right at the end the soloist, as Iphigenia, speaks a few lines. ‘Dark of the sea’ presents an interesting contrast. The music for the choir is written in a rather formal, deliberately archaic style but the passages for Iphigenia herself are much more dramatic in tone. I also admired ‘Bird of the sea rocks’ and especially the opening pages which feature some eloquent writing for the mezzo and haunting passages for solo flute. In the choral passages of ‘Oh, fair the fruits of Leto blow’, the influence of folk dance is more apparent than perhaps anywhere else on the disc. This movement also has some ardent writing for the mezzo. Iphigenia in Tauris has a happy ending where the three principal characters make their escape. VW’s short final piece is for chorus only and once again the music is modal and folk-influenced but the celebration also has an air of gravitas, which is not inappropriate for a Greek play. The final line of text which the chorus sings furnishes the disc with its title.
It wouldn’t be right to describe these three scores as hidden masterpieces. That said, they contain a good deal of impressive and often beautiful music and they expand our knowledge of what VW was up to during a crucial phase of his developing maturity as a composer. As such, I can only recommend this disc very strongly to all admirers of the composer. That recommendation can be all the stronger thanks to the fine performances. Heather Lowe is an excellent, committed and persuasive soloist. The ladies of the Joyful Company of Singers sing very well indeed while the playing of the Britten Sinfonia is as fine as you would expect from this expert band. The music is guided with evident sympathy and understanding by the sure hand of Alan Tongue.
The performances are presented in immaculate sound and the documentation is, as always with this label, comprehensive and authoritative. The notes contain not only a significant amount of background information about the music and how it came to be composed; there is also a good succinct summary of each play which sets VW’s music in context.
This is an important release of hitherto unknown music by Vaughan Williams.