Best of the British Isles: Ralph Vaughan Williams February 19 2014, 0 Comments

Last week, we took a look at Percy Aldridge Grainger, his approach to English folk music, and his contributions to the world of wind band music. Needless to say, he was not the only composer who took part in the the English folk song movement. In fact, looking at other composers and music of the era, Grainger’s music is not very typical of other English folk song compositions. His harmonies are unusual, and his sense of time is flexible and bent. The differences are very apparent when you compare his music to that of Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Ralph Vaughan Williams was born in 1872, and unlike Grainger, was a native Englishman. He started playing piano at the age of six, and violin at seven. As a composer, it took time for his musical style to develop. In 1904, Vaughan Williams first came into contact with traditional English folk songs, and began collect them like many others at the time. Later, he would become the English Folk Dance and Song Society, an organization devoted to the preservation and promotion of English folk music and dance during the early 1900’s.

The music of Vaughan Williams is known for having a characteristically English sound. In comparison to the works of Percy Grainger, Vaughan Williams’ melodies and harmonies are more regular, and its easier to tap your foot in the audience without getting rhythmically displaced. For example, here is his English Folk Song Suite, performed by the United States Marine Band.

Another reason Grainger was an musical outlier of his time was because of how much he wrote for the wind band as opposed to orchestra. Before 1923, the year his English Folk Song Suite was written, Vaughan Williams wrote mostly for orchestra, with this suite being his first piece for the wind band. It features no less than nine folk songs, including Seventeen Come Sunday, My Bonny Boy, Blow Away the Morning Dew, and others. It also uses aspects of traditional military music, which he heard during his time in the Royal Army Medical Corps during WWI. The marches are set in a very English style, most easily noted by the slower tempo than American marches. There is also a certain brisk quality to Vaughan Williams’ writing, which I liken to a group of English sailors singing these songs on a ship.

Folk music perforates much of Vaughan Williams’ music. Altissimo! also carries some of the work he did for choir. His choral arrangements are just as crisp and clean as his writing for band, and capture the mood and style of the traditional folk music.

You can hear Ralph Vaughan Williams’ music on many Altissimo! albums. The above recording of English Folk Song Suite can be found on the United States Marine Band recording Live in Concert, and the choral songs are on the United States Navy Sea Chanters Chorus album Songs of Sailor and Sea. Also, be prepared for Best of the British Isles, a new Altissimo! release coming this March!

- Brian R. Denu