In Tune Arts
Composers and Their Poets: Ralph Vaughan Williams

 Ralph Vaughan Williams, by E.O. Hoppé

Ralph Vaughan Williams, by E.O. Hoppé

The preeminent British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) set the model for British music in the 20th century: he wrote symphonies and for the cinema, he set lyrics by great authors and those little known.

The earliest song settings by Vaughan Williams were of the greats of English poetry: Coleridge, Tennyson, and Shakespeare. Even in these early settings, however, we start to see some of his idiosyncratic text choices. He set one text by Lord Thomas Vaux (1509-1556), another by William Barnes (1801-1886) from a collection of poems in the ‘Dorset Dialect,’ and then seven texts by the Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson, better known for his adventure novels such as Treasure Island.

 Walt Whitman, age 35, from the frontispiece to Leaves of Grass.

Walt Whitman, age 35, from the frontispiece
to Leaves of Grass.

Another unusual poet for this very British composer to set was the American poet of the mid-19th century, Walt Whitman (1819-1892). His song cycle, Three Poems by Walt Whitman, written around 1925, includes two poems from Whitman’s famous collection Leaves of Grass. This work, which Whitman wrote and re-wrote over most of his life, started as a collection of 12 poems and was finished some 40 years later with over 400 poems.

The third poem in the collection, Joy, Shipmate, Joy! truly carries joy in both its text and its setting. The poet makes an analogy between death and the beginning of a new voyage –he leaves his ‘long, long anchorage,’ he travels swiftly away and happily. In his setting, Vaughan Williams captures the essence of the poem’s speed but also manages to make it a sea song at the same time.

Vaughan Williams: Three Poems by Walt Whitman: No. 3. Joy, Shipmate, Joy! (Simon Keenlyside, baritone; Graham Johnson, piano)
 Fredegond Shove, by Lady Ottoline Morrell

Fredegond Shove, by Lady Ottoline Morrell

One minor poet he set was Fredegond Shove, who had been a bridesmaid at Vaughan Williams’ first wedding. Shove’s poem, The New Ghost, which combined an almost conversational tone with a sacred topic, that of a soul returning to Heaven, was an important poem marking the general societal return to religion after World War I. Vaughan Williams’ setting preserves Shove’s conversational tone, ending, almost abruptly, as though the things of Earth are no longer of importance.

Vaughan Williams: Four Poems by Fredegond Shove: No. 3: The New Ghost (Roderick Williams, baritone; Iain Burnside, piano)
Late in his life, one of the poets he set was Ursula Vaughan Williams, his second wife. His song cycle, published posthumously under the title Four Last Songs, was written 2 years before his death. Tired, the second song in the collection, captures the languor of its opening line: ‘Sleep, and I’ll be still as another sleeper holding you in my arms.’ It has been described as ‘among the most moving and effective that Vaughan Williams wrote, music and words magically united.’

Ursula Vaughan Williams with Ralph Vaughan Williams

Ursula Vaughan Williams with Ralph Vaughan Williams

Vaughan Williams: Four Last Songs: No. 2. Tired (Simon Keenlyside, baritone; Graham Johnson, piano)
Ralph Vaughan Williams’ songs always seem intensely personal, even in songs that had been set for centuries before him. His setting of Shakespeare’s It Was a Lover and Lass for two voices, follows the directions that Shakespeare specified in As You Like It, for the song to be sung by 2 voices, but he gives it a unique sound that captures the melancholy of the two banished courtiers.

Vaughan Williams: It was a Lover and His Lass (Anthony Rolfe-Johnson, tenor; Simon Keenlyside, baritone; Graham Johnson, piano

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