The Passions of Vaughan Williams
A film portrait of the composer written, narrated and directed by John Bridcut
Produced 2007-08, First shown on BBC TV in May 2008
Colour, English Language DVD in NTSC format playable in all regions
CRUX PRODUCTIONS CRUXGZ001DVD [90 mins]
This is, to my mind, the most successful of John Bridcut’s three English composer films – a thoughtful and profound survey of Ralph Vaughan William’s colourful life and music.
Like Elgar and Delius, RVW was attracted to women and was admired and loved by them in return. One instinctively feels that they were very important to him as a creative inspiration. Bridcut’s female contributors openly admit on camera that they, and so many other women, fell in love with him as soon as they met him. So many photographs exist of him surrounded by smiling ladies. Importantly, he liked women. His working friendship with the concert pianist Harriet Cohen, for instance, is recalled and the fact that he claimed she owed him 10,000 kisses – and he kept a tally of them! He was a very tactile man! RVW married Adeline Fisher, an accomplished cellist. Her somewhat austere character, appearance and fierce family loyalty is well covered. Their early married years were spent in London.
RVW’s early work, providing attractive, eminently tuneful hymns and his editing of the English Hymnal, is covered - and the fact that he was agnostic. One overlooked aspect was his avid collection of English folk tunes with his colleague, Gustav Holst. Such material would prove to be a strong influence on his composition style.
The First Symphony – A Sea Symphony – especially the dramatic opening, is interestingly discussed by contributors with the revelation that RVW was once nearly drowned while swimming in the sea. Well covered too, is The Thomas Tallis Fantasia with points well made about its eminent suitability for performance in Cathedrals; one observation: “It shows astonishing originality”.
The other symphonies are covered with equally valuable comments. The Pastoral Symphony is regarded as exceptional (what other symphony has four slow movements?); “dark, forbidding and foreboding” with attention drawn to the off-stage bugle intoning The Last Post.
Bridcut notes how the Great War impacted on the lives of Ralph and Adeline. Ralph lost so many friends and colleagues including the promising young composer George Butterworth; while Adeline had fallen prey to debilitating arthritis that would blight the reminder of her life. Soon after the war, the couple chose to forsake their London life for quieter solitude at Dorking in the southern English county of Surrey. The strain clearly affected Adeline, one contributor noted that she could be difficult and prickly and that she had “a tongue like a viper”.
Returning to the symphonies, the Fourth Symphony’s austerity and violence is noted but that in itself might be regarded as a form of beauty and RVW’s own bemused comment about it made at the time is noted.
Jill Balcon’s contribution to an appreciation of the Fifth Symphony, based on RVW’s work, itself based on John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, is unforgettable. On listening to the Romanza movement, she asks, in awe and wonder, of its profound beauty with tears standing in her eyes, “Where does it [this inspiration] come from?” Yes, where indeed!
The other side of this mysticism, human love – eroticism is found and commented upon in RVW’s setting of the Old Testament Song of Solomon, one of the most sensual and sexually charged passages of the Bible. This sensuality is reflected in RVW’s music. Much comment is made on this work (which might be thought of as a quirky work in the RVW corpus).
To return to the symphonies and the violent Sixth – and in particular to its remarkable ending – the contributors note the chilling finale that provokes the suggestion that it might denote a world laid waste after a nuclear conflict.
To Ursula. It is noted that she was bowled over by RVW’s ballet music for Job. She managed a meeting with him and afterwards shared a taxi with him. We do not know who kissed whom in that taxi, but Ursula was hooked and instantly fell deeply, and perhaps possessively, in love with him. Her feelings were returned and for many years they had to be cognisant and sympathetic to the plight of Adeline. There is a touching recollection of the time when Ralph held the hands of both women as they lay together during a Second World War air raid. After the death of Adeline, Ralph and Ursula were married, moved back to London and enjoyed life to the full, travelling everywhere until RVW’s death in August 1958.
There is an unforgettable film sequence showing RVW sitting on the steps of the conductor’s podium listening to a rehearsal of his Serenade to Music, written one surmises during the early ecstasy of his love for Ursula.
A touching aspect of RVW’s work was as conductor at the Dorking Halls Music Festival, especially demonstrating his love and reverence for Bach. He is seen conducting the St Matthew Passion and displaying his eagerness to involve the audience in singing the Chorales.
A wonderful, practically perfect tribute to one of England’s greatest composers.
Contributors include: Michael Kennedy, Anthony Payne, Christopher Finzi, Simona Packenham, Hugh Cobbe, Robert Tear, Miles Vaughan Williams, Nicola LeFanu, Byron Adams and Jeremy Dale Roberts
Live performances of excerpts from works: Symphony No. 8,; Symphony No. 4; Rondel; Down Ampney; A Sea Symphony; Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis; A London Symphony; Dona Nobis Pacem; A Pastoral Symphony; Symphony No. 9; Symphony No. 6; Three Shakespeare Songs; Mr Isaac’s Maggot; Flos Campi; Partita; Job; Serenade to Music; Hugh the Drover; Symphony No. 5; Dives and Lazarus; Silence and Music; Tired.
Musicians taking part include: The Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by the late Richard Hickox; with Rachel Roberts (viola) and Alistair Mackie (trumpet); Schola Cantorm of Oxford conducted by James Burton; and Ruth Peel (mezzo-soprano) and David Owen Norris (piano)