ClassicsOnline Home » VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Phantasy Quintet / String Quartets Nos. 1-2
By Jacob Stockinger
The Capital Times and Wisconsin State Journal
"These are terrific follow-ups, even if the quality of the music is uneven. There's not a lot that remains undiscovered in the string quartet repertoire, but for many listeners these works will be genuine finds."
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Phantasy Quintet; String Quartets Nos. 1 & 2
Ralph Vaughan Williams was born in the Gloucestershire village of Down Ampney in 1872, the son of a clergyman. His ancestry on both his father's and mother's side was of some intellectual distinction. His father was descended from a family eminent in the law, while his maternal grandfather was a Wedgwood and his grandmother a Darwin. On the death of his father in 1875 the family moved to live with his mother's father at Leith Hill Place in Surrey. As a child Vaughan Williams learned the piano and the violin and received a conventional upper middle class education at Charterhouse, after which he delayed entry to Cambridge, preferring instead to study at the Royal College of Music, where his teachers included Hubert Parry and Walter Parratt, later Master of the Queen's Musick, both soon to be knighted. In 1892 he took up his place at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he read History, but took composition lessons from Charles Wood. After graduation in both History and Music, he returned to the Royal College, where he studied composition with Stanford, and, perhaps more significant, became a friend of a fellow-student, Gustav Holst. The friendship with Holst was to prove of great importance in frank exchanges of views on one another's compositions in the years that followed.
In 1897 Vaughan Williams married and took the opportunity to visit Berlin, where he had lessons from Max Bruch and widened his musical experience. In Eng1and he turned his attention to the collection of folk-music in various regions of the country, an interest that materially influenced the shape of his musical language. In 1908 he went to Paris to take lessons, particularly in orchestration, from Ravel, and had by now begun to make a reputation for himself as a composer, not least with the first performance in 1910 of his first symphony, A Sea Symphony, setting words by Walt Whitman, and his Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis in the same year. The even tenor of his life was interrupted by the war, when he enlisted at once in the Royal Army Medical Corps as a private. 1914 was also the year of the London Symphony and of his rhapsodic work for violin and orchestra, The Lark Ascending. Three years later, after service in Salonica that seemed to him ineffective, he took a commission in the: Royal Garrison Artillery and was posted to France. There he was also able to make some use of his abilities as a musician.
After the war Vaughan Williams returned to the Royal College of Music, now as a professor of composition, a position he retained until 1938. In these years he came to occupy a commanding position in the musical life of the country, with a series of compositions that seemed essentially English, the apparent successor of Elgar, although his musical language was markedly different. The war of 1939 brought the challenge of composition for the cinema, with notable scores for The 49th Parallel in 1940 and a number of other films, culminating in 1949 in his music for the film Scott of the Antarctic, the basis of the seventh of his symphonies. Other works of the last decade of his life included two more symphonies, the opera The Pilgrim's Progress, a violin sonata and concertos for harmonica and for tuba, remarkable adventures for an octogenarian.
The Phantasy Quintet, scored for string quartet and a second viola, was written in 1912 and first performed at the Aeolian Hall in London in March 1914 by the London Quartet, led by Albert Sammons, with James Lockyer as second viola. It was dedicated to the quartet and to William Wilson Cobbett, the music patron who had established awards to encourage the composition of 'phantasies', a word that suggested the traditional viola consort fantasies of an earlier period of English music, and had invited the composition. The quintet consists of four short movements. The first viola starts the opening Prelude with thematic material of pentatonic outline, to be answered by the first violin. The viola ends the movement, immediately followed by the Scherzo, with its asymmetrical rhythm and ostinato in textures that seem at times reminiscent of Ravel. The cello, which had started the movement, completes it, before the AlIa Sarabanda, scored for muted instruments without the cello, which returns to begin the final Burlesca, with its echoes of folk-song and reminiscences of the first movement, before a final ascent to the ethereal heights.
Vaughan Williams completed his String Quartet in G minor in 1908, after his short period of lessons with Ravel. It was performed in London in the same year by the quartet led by Isidore Schwiller, and revised in 1921. It is natural that there should be echoes of Ravel and Debussy in the textures and melodic contours of the work, which opens with the viola statement of the theme, leading to a secondary section, marked Tranquillo. The material is subtly developed, eventually returning in a transformed recapitulation. The second movement is a Minuet and Trio, with modal traces of folk-song influence. The tonal centre shifts from E to C for the Trio, with a melody of descending contour. The ternary form Romance, tender in mood, gently unfolds, with a central section of greater intensity. This is followed by a lively and varied Rondo Capriccioso, driven forward by its compelling rhythmic patterns, relaxing only briefly before a 5/4 Jugato.
The String Quartet in A minor (For Jean on Her Birthday) was written in 1942 and 1943 and dedicated to Jean Stewart, violist of the Menges Quartet, which gave the first performance at a war-time National Gallery concert in October 1944. It is the viola, generally prominent throughout, that provides an emphatic opening to the first movement, proposing material that provides the basis of much that follows. The viola starts the second movement Romance, each instrumental line marked senza vibrato in music of absolute tranquility, leading to a chorale-like passage and eventually to a dynamic climax. The viola ends the movement and opens the Scherzo with a theme from the music from the film The 49th Parallel, against the muted tremolo figuration of the other instruments. The Epilogue, with the subtitle Greetings from Joan to Jean and again opened by the viola, uses material intended originally for a proposed film on Joan of Arc, hence the addition to the title. It is a movement of characteristically beautiful serenity.