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The old shall be made new

By Simon Wright

The issue and performance of previously unpublished musical works — juvenilia, early pieces, and even completions by others of music left by composers, for one reason or another, incomplete — always provokes interesting debate. Would the composer have wanted it? Does the newly presented work serve the best interests of the composer’s reputation? Does the music throw new (or even controversial) light on ‘the life and works’?

With Sir Edward Elgar, the recent recording of the quadrilles and polkas that he wrote as a young man for entertainment at the Powick Asylum generated mild interest, but in 1998 Anthony Payne’s completion of the third symphony sketches and fragments left by Elgar at the end his life (and now in the British Library) caused a sensation. Payne called his work an ‘elaboration’ of Elgar’s sketches and — overnight, and fair and square — it gave the world a fine and substantial new piece. If not written by Sir Edward, it is by all counts completely worthy of him, a remarkable tribute, and something by way of repayment by one of his admirers. All the British composers that followed Elgar — such as Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) — owe him a debt.

As a young man and ‘apprentice’ composer, Vaughan Williams wrote much music (chamber works, orchestral pieces, choral works) which received performances at the time, but which he subsequently withdrew. Ursula Vaughan Williams, his widow, ensured that, where possible, the manuscripts for these early works were preserved (the majority were to be deposited in the British Library, along with those of the published works), but during her lifetime generally continued her husband’s policy of not allowing performance or publication.

Towards the end of her life (she died in 2007, almost fifty years after Vaughan Williams) Ursula relaxed her view, realizing the cultural and artistic value of releasing at least a selection of her husband’s early and by now forgotten works (really, the only information about them then available to the public was their listings in Michael Kennedy’s complete catalogue of Vaughan Williams’ works). Since her death The Vaughan Williams Charitable Trust has continued to release selected works, either previously unpublished or earlier versions of works already in the repertoire, to each of the composer’s original music publishers (there were several) or their successors. Such releases include early chamber music to Faber Music and the original (longer) version of A London Symphony to Stainer & Bell.

In 2009 Oxford University Press (OUP) published a small and previously unknown carol by Vaughan Williams (O My Dear Heart), but OUP’s recent issues of unpublished Vaughan Williams titles have been exclusively of orchestral works. The Solent was written in 1902/3 and was planned to be one part of a four-movement orchestral ‘impressions’ of the New Forest. It received a private performance on 19 June 1903 and was then forgotten, although Vaughan Williams made use of one of its themes in at least one later work (his ninth symphony, written shortly before his death). The Serenade in A Minor dates from five years earlier, and was heard at Bournemouth in April 1904 and again in London’s Aeolian Hall in 1908. Like The Solent, it was then forgotten. These two works are being performed on 24 May as part of the English Music Festival, in a ‘Searching for English Music’ concert at Dorchester Abbey, Oxfordshire, with the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Martin Yates. These performances will bring two early scores by Vaughan Williams to the ears of modern audiences for the first time, and will allow listeners to judge for themselves just how and where they fit into the already large and popular oeuvre of this celebrated English composer. The score for Serenade was published by OUP in 2012, and that for The Solent will be issued later this year.

Later this summer, we hear Anthony Payne’s re-imagining not of Elgar but of another Vaughan Williams score. At the request of the BBC he has orchestrated the Four Last Songs, written by Vaughan Williams (originally for voice and piano) to poems by Ursula in the last years of his life, and published posthumously by OUP. Payne’s orchestration will be heard at the Royal Albert Hall in a BBC Promenade Concert on 4 September 2013. New versions of works by Vaughan Williams? The composer would most definitely have approved, but that is another story.

Simon Wright is Head of Rights & Contracts, Music at Oxford University Press. Read his previous blog post: “Sinfonia Antartica: ‘Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free’.”

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Image credit: Portrait of Ralph Vaughan Williams courtesy of OUP sheet music department. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.

Recent Comments

  1. […] Simon Wright is Head of Rights & Contracts, Music at Oxford University Press. Oxford University Press has reissued A Bach Book for Harriet Cohen in a new edition with an introduction by David Owen Norris, together with a matching collection selected from OUP’s other Bach transcriptions, including two by Cohen herself. Both books are decorated with a piano motif taken from the original 1930s cover designs. Read Simon Wright’s previous blog posts: “Sinfonia Antartica: ‘Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free’” and “The old shall be made new.” […]

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