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Vaughan Williams’ Four Last Songs: “letting go” of the music

Composer Ralph Vaughan Williams grew up in a household that regularly used to read to each other, particularly during the long winter evenings. When he married the poet Ursula Wood in the 1950s, the two of them continued to read to each other: the spark of an idea that became the song “Menelaus” from the Four Last Songs grew out of the two of them reading Homer together.

The songs are called “last” but “Menelaus”, rather touchingly, was written only a year or so after Ralph and Ursula married, following a close, 20-year friendship, which perhaps puts a different spin on the “coming home” feel to the text. There is plenty in the genesis of this set for the academics to argue over: which songs should be placed together, should any be omitted, can a man really sing “Hands, Eyes and Heart”? (Ursula says no, Ralph is fine with it), and much more.

That said, since getting to know these pieces and arranging them, I’ve come to love them more for the way in which they showcase compositional styles Vaughan Williams developed over the years. If you perform the pieces in the order in which they are usually published, the two inner poems feel to me to be very much in the mould of some of those he wrote for amateur choir–deceptively simple settings, which are at the same time so full to the brim of emotions that you need do very little to them in performance to show them at their best.

The outer pieces are much more the Vaughan Williams of “The Cloud-Capped Towers” (from his Three Shakespeare Songs): pastoral ambling is swapped for swirling mists and dark mystery, shifting harmonies, unexpected chromatic turns. It’s still, I find, surprising and wonderful to hear Vaughan Williams like this.

When I was at university, one of our regular high-brow conversations was which composer would be the best to go to the pub with. Vaughan Williams was regularly up there. I think it was because he is a composer who wears his learning lightly, and who never takes himself too seriously—who has all the skills but who can let go of them and allow a choir to put their own stamp on a piece. Here he is in a charming letter to the baritone Keith Faulkner, on sending him “Hands, Eyes and Heart” (the final piece in the Four Last Songs):

My dear Keith,

Here is a short pendant to “Menelaus”

1. You may not like it,

2. You may think it unsuitable for a man,

3. You may think it too intimate for public singing,

but if not, would you feel inclined to sing it…? You can sing it in any key you like.

Letter dated 7 March 1955. Source: Vaughan Williams Foundation. Reproduced by permission of the Vaughan Williams Foundation

Here he is again, as told by David Willcocks:

I asked him when I was conducting one of his works, whether I was interpreting it as he would wish. He would reply “I wrote the music: it’s up to you to interpret it. I’m not the one to dictate to others how they should perform my music. I’ve often heard performances […] which made the music more beautiful than I ever conceived it in my head.”

A Life in Music: Conversations with David Willcocks and Friends, ed. William Owen (OUP, 2008) p.106

This relaxed approach to the interpretation of his own work is quite refreshing, and not something that every composer could cope with. Benjamin Britten, for example, would insist:

I’ve put in my score exactly what I want […] if you do anything, I shall be unhappy.

A Life in Music: Conversations with David Willcocks and Friends, ed. William Owen (OUP, 2008) p.107

In arranging the Four Last Songs, I wanted to maintain something of the simplicity of the inner pieces and the mystery of the outer works—to “colour them in,” perhaps. Choral arranging is such a fascinating art, and there are so many valid approaches. When you arrange for choir, you have so much freedom, such colour at your disposal, but you also have restrictions—the arranger who ignores their voice leading will not make many friends for instance. The inner songs in this set leapt up as pieces that would transfer well to a cappella singing—and this, I hope, helps to keep that feeling of relative simplicity. Of course, there’s lots going on, particularly in “Hands, Eyes and Heart” but I hope the relative stillness and subtle movements are preserved.

The piano parts of “Procris” and “Menelaus” are not easily translatable for choir, and for this, as well as studying the original score, I listened to Anthony Payne’s excellent orchestral transcriptions of the set, and used the original piano accompaniment as a base on which to add some more colour than a single vocal line allows.

And in performance? I believe we should take Vaughan Williams at his word—take his music, and make it as beautiful as we can, in whichever way works best for each individual choir. If a particular part is sounding a bit a weedy, add some more voices from a different part (I often ask my altos to add a bit of lustre to the odd solo tenor line); redistribute the voices if the melody isn’t coming through in a particular place or acoustic. In short, be flexible in both your approach to the score, and in your singing of the piece. Take the score as a starting point and make it brilliant and moving and wonderful in any way in which you can—and that, I think, is something of which Ralph Vaughan Williams would approve.

Featured image: Claude Lorrain, via Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

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