Vaughan Williams, Ralph: O Thou Transcendent: The Life of Ralph Vaughan Williams (DVD) 2007
O Thou Transcendent:
The Life of Ralph Vaughan Williams (DVD)
Director: Tony Palmer
Format: Colour, NTSC
Region: All Regions
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
Number of discs: 1
Studio: Tony Palmer Films/ Select Music & Video Distribution
DVD Release Date: 31 Dec 2007
Run Time: 148 minutes
O Thou Transcendent, The Life of Ralph Vaughan Williams, released on DVD on 31 December 2007, is the first ever full-length film about Vaughan Williams. It marks the 50th anniversary of the composer’s death in 1958 and is made by the multi-award winning director Tony Palmer.
O Thou Transcendent, made at the behest of the Vaughan Williams Trust, features specially recorded extracts from all the Symphonies, Job, The Tallis Fantasia, The Lark Ascending, Pilgrim’s Progress and Greensleeves, and contains in all over ninety minutes of music; featuring the National Radio Orchestra of Hungary, the London Philharmonic, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, the (UK) National Youth Orchestra, Nicola Benedetti, Gloucester Cathedral Choir, Simon Keenlyside, Joan Rodgers, Sian Edwards, Jordi Savall, Imogen Holst, Adrian Boult, Barbara Dickson, André Previn and Tamas Vasary, with surprising contributions from John Adams, Richard Thompson of Fairport Convention, Neil Tennant of The Pet Shop Boys, Tony Benn, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Tippett, Martin and Eliza Carthy, Mark Anthony Turnage and Harrison Birtwistle. The two and a half hour film also includes the last ever interview with the composer’s widow Ursula Vaughan Williams, filmed only six weeks before her death in October 2007, aged 97.
Ralph Vaughan Williams stirred strong passions both in his life and since his death. He was dismissed by many – including initially the late Michael Tippett – as responsible for ‘Folk Waffle’. However Tippett, like many others, later realized he had made a profound misjudgment and declared that it was Vaughan Williams who ‘rather than any of his contemporaries, had made us free’. As Tony Palmer comments; ‘Folk Waffle? This does not even begin to describe some of the bleakest, most desperate and yearning English music written in the last hundred years. Vaughan Williams is the composer who leapt back across the centuries to Tallis, Byrd, Dowland and Purcell long before it became fashionable to do so. This is the man who almost single-handedly rescued the English Hymnal. This is the visionary who prompted the Churchill government during the Second World War to establish what became the Arts Council, the National Youth Orchestra and The Third Programme for the BBC. This is also a man whose music is perhaps soaked in the blood of the First World War.’
Palmer’s film works across a broad landscape. Vaughan Williams, born in 1872, came from a privileged background, educated at Charterhouse and Cambridge. His relations, either by birth or marriage, included Darwin, Wedgwood, Keynes and Virginia Woolf, placing him centre stage among the intellectual aristocracy of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A devastatingly handsome young man who never had to earn a living but who, at the age of 41, volunteered as an infantryman in the Great War, he eventually served in the Ambulance Corps, recovering the shattered bodies of fallen comrades.
Palmer concludes; ‘O Thou Transcendent is not a hymn of praise. Far from it. My intention is to explode forever the myth of Vaughan Williams as a cuddly old uncle endlessly recycling English folk songs, despite the fact that The Lark Ascending is many people’s favourite piece of classical music. As a composer, however, Vaughan Williams bestrides English music in the 20th century like a colossus. Every aspect of our musical life stands in his shadow. He deserves his place amongst the greatest of English Composers, and I hope the audience will be awakened through my film to Vaughan Williams as a central figure in our musical heritage.’
What the critics say
Director blasts ‘BBC ignorance’
Licence-payers are being treated as idiots in the chase for ratings, claims an award-winning documentary-maker after row over a mystery rejection letter
One of television’s most imaginative film-makers has condemned Mark Thompson’s leadership of the BBC as a ‘catastrophe’ and accused the corporation of undermining its worldwide reputation by insulting the intelligence of viewers.
Tony Palmer, who has won more than 40 awards including Baftas, Emmys and, uniquely, the Prix Italia twice, criticised the director-general after the BBC turned down a documentary of his. The film, about English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, has been produced by Five instead.
Palmer said he received an extraordinary rejection letter from a BBC commissioning editor explaining that, ‘having looked at our own activity via the lens of find, play & share’, it had been decided the film did not fit with ‘the new vision for [BBC] Vision’.
Bizarrely, Palmer said, the letter concluded: ‘But good luck with the project, and do let me know if Mr. V. Williams has an important premiere in the future as this findability might allow us to reconsider.’ Vaughan Williams died in 1958.
Mysteriously, the BBC said that it had no record of the proposal and was working on a documentary about Vaughan Williams which had already been commissioned from the director John Bridcut. Palmer insisted that the exchange had taken place but declined to name the author of the letter, sent in June 2006.
‘No human being can understand this letter,’ he told The Observer. ‘What does “findability” mean? Television used to be called television, not “vision”. It’s idiotic. I’ve no problem with being turned down but I’d like it to be for reasons I understand. If I’d been starting out 30 years ago and I read this garbage, I’d have slit my wrists.’
In a long and distinguished career, Palmer has made more than 100 films, including documentaries about Benjamin Britten, Igor Stravinsky, Maria Callas and Yehudi Menuhin. His series Wagner, starring Richard Burton, was described by critics as ‘one of the most beautiful films ever made’.
He approached the BBC last year with the idea of making a documentary about Vaughan Williams, whose best known symphonies include The Lark Ascending and Fantasia on Greensleeves, in time for the 50th anniversary of the composer’s death. After his rejection, Palmer won a commission from Five for a two-and-a-half hour film which will be broadcast on New Year’s Day.
O Thou Transcendent includes contributions from Sir Michael Tippett, Mark Anthony Turnage, Harrison Birtwistle and, more unexpectedly, Neil Tennant of The Pet Shop Boys, Tony Benn and the Archbishop of Canterbury. It also features the last interview with the composer’s widow, Ursula Vaughan Williams, filmed only six weeks before her death in October 2007, aged 96. After a preview screening at London’s Barbican Centre, Vaughan Williams biographer Simon Heffer described it as ‘stunning’.
Palmer said: ‘It’s the kind of film the BBC in the good old days would have made. Now it’s not going to make this kind of film. It’s nothing to do with money. It’s a complete misunderstanding of the BBC’s purpose.
‘The BBC has a worldwide reputation which it has abrogated and that’s shameful. In the end, the buck stops with Mark Thompson. He is a catastrophe.’
The attack comes a week after Sir Richard Eyre, the former artistic director of the National Theatre, criticised the BBC for failing to provide programmes that inspire people to visit museums, galleries or theatres.
Thompson is also under pressure after announcing plans to make 1,800 redundancies and redeploy a further 700 staff, raising the prospect of industrial action.
Palmer stressed that he was grateful to certain BBC departments, including archivists and the BBC Chorus, for making the film possible. He added: ‘I’m not one of those people who believe there was a golden age of television. But the morale of the BBC has never been as bad as it is now.
‘The really depressing thing that’s happened is the tendency to think the audience is stupid: “If we don’t have it presented by Ant and Dec or some totty dolly bird they won’t watch it.” This is an insult to the audience and denigration of the traditions the BBC is meant to uphold. The audience is being told it’s too stupid to grasp anything “cultural” or “elitist”. Bollocks is the answer to that.’
Palmer did not rule out returning to the BBC, but added: ‘If I’m going to be offered 50 minutes on BBC4 then no, thank you very much. It’s not that I’m against BBC4, but what’s the point if you’re not going to reach an audience?.’
A BBC spokeswoman said: ‘Television arts commissioning can find no record of receiving a proposal from Tony Palmer. This rejection letter did not come from them. We are unable to take this letter seriously without seeing it or being given the name of who sent it.
‘We had already begun developing a film with John Bridcut on Vaughan Williams in early 2006. We reject any suggestion that films require celebrity involvement to be commissioned,’ she added.
The following clarification was printed in the Observer’s For the record column, Sunday December 16 2007. Thank you to the many fans of Vaughan Williams who pointed out that the composer’s Fantasia on Greensleeves (1934) and The Lark Ascending (1914) are not symphonies, but respectively, a fantasia, as the name suggests, and a concertante for violin and orchestra.
The Vaughan Williams Society
Tony Palmer’s film is now complete. Undoubtedly controversial it will also be very important in raising awareness of RVW. Two and a half hours long, it looks at Vaughan Williams’ life as a disturbed and frustrated one. Powerful with some harrowing imagery, the film firmly dispels the myth that VW was a cuddly folk song collector and recycler who was affectionately known as “Uncle Ralph”. As well as exploring his musical legacy, Palmer also focuses on the human side of VW. His frustration at living in a cosy market town, looking after an invalid wife (which he did devotedly) and the fury as well as the kindness and humanity which were all features of his remarkable character and which in their turn affected his music. The music passages are superbly played and filmed. The film is available on DVD. An absolute must see.
Simon Heffer, The Telegraph, 5 December 2007
The stunning new film about composer Ralph Vaughan Williams challenges the myths that obscure his legacy – and exposes the darkness that permeates his work.
Tony Palmer’s films have been illuminating music – rock and classical – for almost 40 years now. In the classical genre he has successfully cornered the market in British composers, and, happily for the aficionado, they are mostly available on DVD.
His films about Malcolm Arnold and William Walton are probably the last word anyone will need to have on both men, and his documentary on Benjamin Britten, A Time There Was, still looks like an utter masterpiece more than 25 years on.
Now Palmer has added to his oeuvre a stunning film on Ralph Vaughan Williams, O Thou Transcendent, to be shown on Five on New Year’s Day: 2008 is the 50th anniversary of the composer’s death, and this will be but the first of many tributes planned over the next 12 months.
Including ad breaks the film will run for three hours, an unprecedented investment of time in a musical documentary, not just by Five, but by any British television network. Palmer told me that he has about the same quantity again of material that he had to edit out for reasons of length: given the quality of what is left, we must hope that one day a director’s cut of the film will appear.
Unusually, a DVD of the film as it is to be broadcast is very soon to be in the shops, and anyone interested in the composer’s music should not hesitate to buy it.
To many with only a superficial knowledge of his music, Vaughan Williams was a pastoral composer. This is only partly true, and it is not necessarily a big part.
Palmer confronts the stereotype head on, and paints a detailed picture of a man of enormous depths, frustrated in his personal life and tortured by the experience of war, whose music mostly reflected these currents.
It is music, though, that is seldom put before a mass public. Cleverly, the director opens his film with footage from the Classic FM studios of the announcement that The Lark Ascending had won a listener’s poll as their favourite piece of classical music.
The undeniably beautiful and profound work is just the sort of “safe” music that attracts to Vaughan Williams those who do not wish for too bumpy a ride: his arrangements of Greensleeves and other folk songs, The Wasps Overture and other such pieces come into the same category.
Palmer then exposes the dark side of Vaughan Williams, one to be found in almost every work he wrote after the Great War. In illustrating the music with footage of famine, war and pestilence he avoids the trite and takes the viewer into a new understanding of the composer.
The symphonies are the core of Palmer’s film, with extracts superbly played by the Mariinsky Orchestra and the National Youth Orchestra: and it is they that illustrate time and again the composer’s fierce grip on an unpleasant reality.
There is the near death-march from the finale of The London Symphony, the mis-sounded Last Post from the Pastoral, the almost unrelieved ferocity of the Fourth and the apocalyptic tone of the Sixth.
Palmer further illustrates his point with a series of remarkable interviews with many who knew Vaughan Williams well. There is an awesome selection of archive film, including Boult, Barbirolli, Imogen Holst and even Maud Karpeles; and archive, and previously unseen footage, of his widow Ursula, who died last month, together with reminiscences by members of the composer’s extended family.
There is testimony from Roy Douglas, who, as the composer’s amanuensis, is the most important surviving witness of Vaughan Williams’s technique as a musician.
Most illuminating of all is the contribution by our own Michael Kennedy, who as well as sharing with us his almost unique understanding of the composer, who befriended him as a young man, reveals a great secret of Vaughan Williams’s life during the film. It casts much of the later music in an entirely different light, even to those of us who thought we knew it, and the composer, well.
Yet Palmer has also succeeded in finding people who admire Vaughan Williams’s work but are not of the usual type that we would expect to praise him. One such is Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys; another is Sir Harrison Birtwistle, whose own music could not be less like Vaughan Williams’s.
The film not only shows what an inspiration the composer has been to people as diverse as these, but reminds us time and again of the generosity of spirit with which Vaughan Williams conducted his own life. There is the touching story of how, at the Norwich Festival in 1936, the orchestra cut up rough when asked to play the premiere of Britten’s Our Hunting Fathers.
There was also about to be the premiere of Vaughan Williams’s Five Tudor Portraits, and the great man sprang to the defence of the younger composer – Britten was then only 22. Vaughan Williams told them they were “in the presence of greatness” – he was not referring to himself – and that if they did not want to play Britten’s work they would not play his. That was the end of the problem. Sadly, Britten, who certainly was a genius but whose self-regard was legendary, rarely reciprocated the generosity.
Palmer succeeds in his film in not just acquainting the viewer with the sheer breadth and colour of Vaughan Williams’s long life – he died six weeks short of his 86th birthday – but also in bringing out of the closet much of the music that Classic FM would hesitate to bring before an audience that does not wish to be ruffled.
He shows that the greatness of this particular man lay not merely in the quality of his music (and even at three hours, he lacks the time to get into complex and revealing works such as the Piano Concerto, Dona Nobis Pacem, or the Pilgrim’s Progress, the last of which is something of a key to Vaughan Williams’s life), but in the quality of his character.
As well as inspiring the listening public with works of the highest calibre over more than half a century, Vaughan Williams did much good wherever he went – as a teacher, as a very active leader of the Leith Hill Music Festival, as a writer, but, above all, as a man determined to show that, after centuries of mockery as an unmusical nation, England had once more found its own distinct and powerful musical voice.
This film will send people rushing for the music that they don’t know, and can only widen Vaughan Williams’s appeal further and the appreciation of his art. It is the perfect curtain-raiser for a year of commemoration, and one which, like so many of Palmer’s film, will be a reference point for decades to come.
Michael Greenhalgh, Musicweb, April 2008
2008 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.
‘O 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.
This 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.
Palmer 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.
Palmer 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.
The 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 taken from music written for the film.
Extracts 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.
Symphony 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).
In 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, optimistic response.
There’s 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.
“It 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 less desolate.
In 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.
Lynne Walker, The Independent, 28 November 2007
Almost 50 years after his death, the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams is finally being celebrated on film. About time too, says Lynne Walker
Tony Palmer first used the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams in his television film, All My Loving, more than 40 years ago. In his typically maverick way, Palmer ran part of the composer’s Ninth Symphony under the words of The Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine”, setting the tone of his take on Sixties pop culture.
If the music of cuddly old Uncle Ralph (pronounced “Rafe”) seemed an unusual choice in this context, that was exactly Palmer’s intention, and that was when the seed was sown in his mind that here was a hugely significant English composer who had been shamefully disregarded, underestimated, misunderstood.
Encouraged by the Vaughan Williams Society, Palmer attempts to unravel the mystery of this injustice in his latest film, O Thou Transcendent. At two-and-a-half hours long, it bears many of the hallmarks of his 100-odd films, many on composers. Archive footage, talking heads, submusical excerpts, hard-hitting imagery, tight editing, stark lighting and edgy camerawork give this film about Vaughan Williams an unexpected cohesion. And what is remarkable is that Five has found the time and space to screen such a lengthy and original film as O Thou Transcendent on New Year’s Day, no less. True, the BBC is saving its tribute on the 50th anniversary of the death of Vaughan Williams until a little later in 2008, when John Bridcut’s documentary will be aired, but by then Palmer’s idiosyncratic take on Vaughan Williams, also on DVD, will surely have helped to restore his reputation. as a composer “who bestrides English music in the 20th century like a colossus”.
Who would have guessed that the Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant carried a banner for Vaughan Williams from his schooldays? Or that Richard Thompson of Fairport Convention was also a fan? Sir Harrison Birtwistle wrote asking for hints on how to become a composer and was offered encouragement. John Adams recalls the Tallis Fantasia as his earliest musical experience. Mark Anthony Turnage felt keenly the darkness in Vaughan Williams’s music, while the writer Stephen Johnson puts his finger on the composer’s realisation that the outcome for mankind was little more than hopeless.
Among the recollections and comments in the film, assembled from the 1,400 pages that Palmer transcribed from interviews, and from Vaughan Williams’s letters, it is the bleaker aspects of the composer’s life and music that come across most vividly. Associations of Vaughan Williams with lush melody and pastoral loveliness seem naive in the light of the terrible flashes of foreboding in music that signals that Vaughan Williams could be as gritty and grim as the more discordant next generation. Michael Tippett, who had despised the composer for his “folk waffle”, later came to regret his judgement.
Palmer’s introduction to O Thou Transcendent is carried along on the opening of Vaughan Williams’s A Sea Symphony: “Behold, the sea itself”, with its electrifying key-change and waves of voices surging on a sea of instruments. Although Palmer takes his film’s unengaging title from this setting of Walt Whitman, his motto seems to come from the final movement’s description of mankind’s voyage of the soul: “Sail forth – steer for the deep waters only.”
As the film sweeps onwards from the beginning of Vaughan Williams’s symphonic adventure, Palmer interweaves snippets of his fascinating background. Some of it is told in the words of the composer himself – sounding, despite the public-school accent, modest to the point of laconic – while the fuller picture is fleshed out in the observations of those who knew him.
“I was born in Down Ampney,” Vaughan Williams begins, and a picture emerges of the child of the vicar who died when his son was just two. His mother was the great-grand-daughter of Josiah Wedgwood, and his great-uncle was Charles Darwin. A Wedgwood aunt gave the young Vaughan Williams piano lessons, and Charterhouse, the Royal College of Music and Cambridge followed, as well as studies with Max Bruch in Berlin and Ravel in Paris. But it was his discovery of the music of Byrd, Dowland, Tallis and Purcell that really influenced his music.
Illustrations tend to represent Vaughan Williams as a bear-like figure, on whose shelves of corpulence cats sought refuge. Earlier pictures, however, show him as a handsome fellow. His unhappy (probably unconsummated) marriage of over half a century had a profound effect on both him and his output. Ursula Wood – his longtime secretary, literary associate, companion and, in his old age, inspiring wife – apparently had a discreet abortion, presumably so as not to upset the composer’s then wife, Adeline Fisher. Palmer’s interviews with Ursula, the last made just weeks before her recent death, add immeasurably to the film.
Palmer regrets not being able to include one story that might surprise the 67,013 Classic FM listeners who voted The Lark Ascending their favourite classical work. Composing it while watching soldiers embark at Margate, Vaughan Williams was arrested and accused of writing coded notes on military manoeuvres. In O Thou Transcendent, Palmer draws him out of the shadows and puts him back at the centre of English musical life.
‘O Thou Transcendent’ will be screened at the Barbican, London EC2 (020-7638 4141) on 5 December; and on Five at 12noon on 1 January; the DVD is out now on Isolde Films
Steve Smith, New York Times, 13 July 2008
A Composer Forever English, Cows and All
A well-placed barb can affect an artist’s reputation forever, even when credit for the insult is uncertain. Philip Heseltine, an English critic who composed under the name Peter Warlock, is said to have likened “A Pastoral Symphony” (Symphony No. 3) by his countryman, Ralph Vaughan Williams, to a cow staring over a fence.
Google Vaughan Williams and that epithet, and you will also find it attributed to Constant Lambert, a composer acquainted with both men. The bovine imagery appears in other variations: Aaron Copland is supposed to have said that listening to Vaughan Williams’s Symphony No. 5 was like staring at a cow for 45 minutes. Elisabeth Lutyens, an English modernist composer, dismissed the British pastoral school, of which Vaughan Williams was the most prominent figure, with the withering term “cow-pat music.”
The Lutyens pronouncement is better remembered than any of her compositions. Vaughan Williams’s music, on the other hand, continues to flourish, at least in the land of his birth. In April his “Lark Ascending,” a thrice-familiar reverie for violin and orchestra, took the top spot in a listener poll of the Top 300 classical works, sponsored by Classic FM in London, for the second straight year. His “Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis,” moved up to 3rd place from 10th.
This year the 50th anniversary of Vaughan Williams’s death is being commemorated with a bounty of British performances, including several concerts featuring his works in the BBC Proms festival, which opens Friday. A complete symphony cycle by the Philharmonia Orchestra culminates in early November, and a new English National Opera production of “Riders to the Sea,” directed by the actress Fiona Shaw, opens at the end of that month.
While Leonard Slatkin, an inveterate champion of Vaughan Williams, conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra in his “Five Variants of ‘Dives and Lazarus’ ” at the Tanglewood Festival on Saturday, no major memorials are scheduled in the United States, where he is regarded as an exemplar of avuncular British parochialism, for his folk-tune rhapsodies, dreamily rendered landscapes and Anglican hymns. Never mind that in two memorable recent concerts at Avery Fisher Hall, Colin Davis conducted the New York Philharmonic in Vaughan Williams’s roiling Fourth Symphony and the London Symphony Orchestra in the bleak, disquieting Sixth: terse, enigmatic works that are worlds apart from the wistful nostalgia that continues to define his reputation.
New audio and video releases meant to coincide with the anniversary offer a fuller view of Vaughan Williams’s life and work, prompting a timely re-evaluation. “O Thou Transcendent,” an extensive documentary by the English filmmaker Tony Palmer, has just been issued on Mr. Palmer’s DVD label, distributed by Naxos. “Vaughan Williams: The Collector’s Edition,” a budget-price boxed set from EMI Classics, offers nearly all of his music on 30 CDs, including important recordings of his symphonies, songs and operas.
Mr. Palmer has long concentrated on musical subjects, having produced well-regarded documentaries on Benjamin Britten and William Walton, and a bizarre yet fascinating dramatization of “Testimony,” the disputed second-hand memoirs of Shostakovich, starring Ben Kingsley. That Mr. Palmer approached Vaughan Williams with an agenda to shake up the status quo is apparent from the opening statement by Stephen Johnson, a music historian.
“I think Vaughan Williams is the most underestimated, the most misunderstood of all the great 20th-century English composers,” Mr. Johnson says. “What a complex and disturbing artist he is, a man who wrote some of the most deeply unsettling music of our time.”
Mr. Palmer cuts to the Classic FM control booth, where “The Lark Ascending” is proclaimed the listeners’ top pick. Video of the violinist Nicola Benedetti playing the work is interspersed with lingering shots of verdant hills, quaint villages and cloudy skies: precisely what you think the music is about. Mr. Palmer then shatters the peace with a bracing excerpt from the Fourth Symphony, in which a discordant four-note theme in the brasses is obsessively repeated. The music parallels a brittle strain also found in Shostakovich.
Through archival interviews with Vaughan Williams; testimony from friends, colleagues and historians; and vintage photographs and musical examples Mr. Palmer illuminates a life that started in a position of status and privilege. Vaughan Williams’s mother, Margaret, was a daughter of Josiah Wedgwood III and a niece of Charles Darwin. His father, Arthur, the vicar of a church in Down Ampney, Gloucestershire, died when Vaughan Williams was 2. He wrote his first piece at 6, took up the viola at the Charterhouse school, was educated at the Royal College of Music in London and at Cambridge and studied with Bruch and Ravel.
Coming of age at a time when English composers sought a means to eradicate German influence, Vaughan Williams looked to composers of the Tudor era, adopting sounds from their music and instruments. With the composer Gustav Holst, a devoted friend and colleague from the academy, and the preservationist Cecil Sharp, he trekked through the English countryside, collecting folk songs on primitive cylinder recordings just as the Hungarian composers Bartok and Kodaly were doing in their regions.
Vaughan Williams adopted aspects of those formative experiences in his mature compositional style, a combination of plainspoken modal melodies, harmonies that suggested vast spaces and Ravel’s opulent orchestration. What resulted was a distinctive musical language flexible enough to accommodate the bustling cityscape of “A London Symphony” (No. 2), the apocalyptic fury of the Sixth Symphony, the desolate majesty of the “Sinfonia Antartica” (No. 7) and the elusive melancholy of the Ninth Symphony.
Mr. Palmer illuminates some of his subject’s seeming contradictions. Though an atheist, Vaughan Williams compiled and edited the English Hymnal and wrote a number of sacred works. He enlisted in the army during World War I and served in the ambulance corps on the French front; his “Pastoral” Symphony, no cow-pat music, evokes the sad beauty and loss he experienced there.
Mr. Palmer’s interviewees draw uncommonly direct lines from Vaughan Williams’s personal circumstances to the compositions that resulted. The Fourth Symphony, widely regarded as a presentiment of World War II, is explained as an expression of the rage Vaughan Williams bottled up while caring for Adeline, his disabled first wife. The radiant calm of the Fifth Symphony and the extraordinary fecundity and adventurousness of his final decades is ascribed to his relationship with Ursula, his second wife, who is seen at 96 in her final interview, filmed in October just before she died.
Some of the most impressive statements in “O Thou Transcendent” come from composers of later generations, none of whom emulated Vaughan Williams’s style. Michael Tippett, in an archival interview, says that he initially rejected his forebear’s “folk waffle” but later came to realize that “through him especially, we were made free.” Harrison Birtwistle points out that for a postwar British generation largely unaware of Schoenberg’s advances, Vaughan Williams quite simply constituted new music. Mark-Anthony Turnage and John Adams speak admiringly of early encounters.
Mr. Palmer’s only major misstep is his use of grisly footage from modern conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere to bludgeon home his point that wars still happen and, presumably, Vaughan Williams’s evocations remain relevant. The point is self-evident, the carnage a disservice.
But without question Mr. Palmer’s film stimulates an appetite for Vaughan Williams’s music. This he achieves with tantalizing archival film of a serene Adrian Boult conducting the Fifth Symphony in 1970 and a gripping scene of Sarah Walker in the opera “Riders to the Sea” from 1988, as well as with recent performances by the vocalists Thomas Allen and Simon Keenlyside and the National Youth Orchestra, an ensemble Vaughan Williams helped to establish 60 years ago.