Vaughan Williams

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

With considerable curiosity, and with much regard for the composer, I went to the rehearsal of Vaughan Williams’s Suite for viola and orchestra5. Time passes: but it seems only a little while since I saw Vaughan Williams and Holst at a Philharmonic rehearsal eagerly discussing the work under direction. Of all English composers, Vaughan Williams is the most English of them all: he loves the countryside and the county town, which goes with families who have a foothold deep in the soil. For this reason we shall never see him exercising the ritual of popularity, and I am sure that a proposal to found a Vaughan Williams Society would send him abroad to an unstated destination, leaving all the specially stamped gramophone records unsigned.

Outside the Elgar symphonies, Vaughan Williams’s London Symphony is the most popular in the English repertoire. This is his one supreme effort to depict the atmosphere of a city inside the framework of a symphony. His Pastoral Symphony is not so popular, probably because it is less robust and suggests that quality of shyness which eludes the obvious. The Piano Concerto is a large-scale work of enormous power: the first movement surpasses even the symphonies in fervid contrapuntal writing.

The Suite for viola and orchestra is a bunch of finely worked miniature dances. The rehearsal took place with the composer seated comfortably in the balcony, smoking his pipe. A certain dryness distinguished the directions of the conductor: ‘That is a little on the fast side’, ‘I would like that played much softer’, ‘Don’t make too much of the crescendos’, and ‘You might try that without the viola’. If English character and English thinking are what the public wants, then Vaughan Williams supplies the need, and the reward should be more performances of his works and honours still to come. One outstanding virtue attaching to this very English composer is his kind regard for his contemporaries in the art; and another is his desire to foster musical life in our villages. I have heard of his conducting festivals with village choirs and bringing off successfully performances of Bach’s St Matthew passion. A few months ago I listened to a broadcast of village choirs singing Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, with Vaughan Williams conducting, and I am glad of this opportunity of saying that te chorus singing was as good as any I have heard.

  1. Brian had reviewed the work’s première in the December Musical opinion — for which see the previous Newsletter [JRM to add link to relevant webpage]. ↩︎

On the other hand, by La main gauche

Musical opinion, January 1935, p. 302