Where to start with Ralph Vaughan Williams

BY Rosie Pentreath

18th Aug 2022 Music

Where to start with Ralph Vaughan Williams

From soaring film scores to rich choral gems, Vaughan Williams wrote music in an astonishingly diverse range of genres. Violinist Tasmin Little recommends where to start

To celebrate the 150th anniversary of the birth of English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, Tasmin Little OBE has helped us select a playlist of works that will introduce new fans to Vaughan Williams to his ravishing works while reminding more established fans why there is so much to celebrate in his diverse output.

The Lark Ascending

Rarely failing to be voted No 1 in the Classic FM Hall of Fame, The Lark Ascending endures as one of the most popular pieces of classical music in the UK. “I think it’s to do with the intimacy of the piece, and the ancient modal harmonies Vaughan Williams incorporates into his 20th-century perspective,” violinist Tasmin Little says. “Many people associate this bird with England, and with the countryside for which England is greatly known. The piece captures the beauty of the countryside; the beauty of nature.”

Little adds: “There’s also a more spiritual plane people experience the piece on. They see this bird as a free spirit, and associate themselves with this soaring, ever higher and higher towards heaven. The piece has a spiritual or even religious element for people hoping to achieve something heavenly.”

Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis

Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis is one of the pieces that I come back to time and time again,” Tasmin Little says. “It contains music that pulls you in immediately, and it has this extraordinary combination of ancient and new, a unique mixture that is something Vaughan Williams does so well.”

The Fantasia is Vaughan Williams’ elaboration of a short piece from around 1567, penned by the English Renaissance composer Tallis.

“There are not many people that can amalgamate this ancient style of music, but Vaughan Williams brings it into the 20th century with a wonderful section in the middle that’s passionate, and so emotionally powerful, before we end back in the ancient, and it’s fabulous,” Little says.

“Anybody listening to it will find the hairs on the back of their neck ending up on end. That ethereal opening, when the music is emerging as if from a great distance—a great distance in terms of volume but also from the point of view of when Thomas Tallis is writing, centuries ago—is mesmerising”

Serenade to Music

One of Vaughan Williams’ most approachable pieces is the sublime Serenade To Music for orchestra and chorus. “It’s like taking a warm bath: you just feel enveloped in this luscious, comforting blanket of harmony,” Tasmin Little shares.

The violinist, who was awarded an OBE for her services to music in 2012, adds: “It also has a personal element for me because there’s a lot of solo violin. There are also solo singers, a chorus, and an orchestra, so you’ve got this blend of an individual voice, within the bigger sound, and a community spirit of everybody making this music together. It’s so special.”

As you listen, reflect on a message that could be taken from this music: that we are all individuals and yet we work best in a group; we work best when we are in harmony together.

Symphony No 5

The Fifth Symphony has an amazing slow movement, the ‘Romanza’,” Little says. “It’s one of those pieces that has an incredibly expressive beauty of harmony, and like much of Vaughan Williams’ music it’s very emotionally direct and moving.”

Vaughan Williams completed his Symphony No 5 at the end of 1943 to much acclaim, its gentle pastoral style being warmly welcomed amid the turmoil and devastation of the ongoing Second World War.

Sinfonia Antartica

As well as his prolific output as an orchestral and choral composer, Vaughan Williams is known for writing music for radio and film, including 49th Parallel (1941), Scott of the Antarctic (1948) and the BBC radio adaptation of John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress (1943).

For Little, the epic Sinfonia Antarctica from Vaughan Williams’ Scott of the Antarctic score is a special piece, and she has gone back to it again and again over the years. “I’ve known Sinfonia Antartica for many years, and associate it with memories of watching the film when I was quite a young girl.”

Fantasia on Greensleeves

Vaughan Williams’ 1928 meditation on the traditional English song “Greensleeves” is also close to Little’s heart.

“I remember very early recollections of listening to music when I was a child growing up. My parents both loved classical music and used to listen to a great variety of music, and one of the earliest pieces that I remember hearing was Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on Greensleeves,” she remembers fondly. “Whenever I hear that haunting opening, I’m taken right back to my parents’ flat, and to listening to this music. Vaughan Williams’ music has been with me for a long time, and I have a very personal connection with it.”

Vaughan Williams transforms the familiar song of ice cream trucks on hazy spring days into a sophisticated and ravishing four-minute orchestral piece.

2022 marks the 150th anniversary of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s birth, with special performances, recordings and events planned throughout the year. Visit rvwsociety.com/rvw150 to find out more

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