Thursday, May 21, 2015

English Folk Found in Classical Music: Ralph Vaughan Williams

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958) is another name we can connect with this national music movement in England at the turn of the twentieth century. He was good friends with Gustav Holst, whom we talked about last time, and perhaps even considered more nationalistic in his output.

Vaughan Williams began his musical studies early with an aunt. Like Holst, Vaughan Williams endured criticism early on, his elders not confident in his musical potential. Once he decided to seek success through building on England’s musical past, his career began to fall into place. Early on in the century, Vaughan Williams worked as the musical editor for the new English Hymnal. During this time, he learned about hymnody and some of the successful English composers several centuries before his time. This sparked his interest in composing his own hymn tunes, arranging folk songs as hymns, and finding old hymns that he could add to the new hymnal.

Vaughan Williams essentially revitalized English composition by reaching back to those English composers who came before him. A perfect example of this is his Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, which he based on a Tallis hymn found while working on the English Hymnal. He chose to maintain the hymn’s Phrygian mode and used a fantasia form known for its thematic development, which was quite popular with early English composers. This helped establish that folk element, pulling from England’s native past. You can listen to Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis below. What other of his works do you enjoy?

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

English Folk Found in Classical Music: Gustav Holst

Last week we explored the use of folk music in the work of two Norwegian composers, Edvard Grieg and Johan Svendsen. This week, let’s go to England where, during the late nineteenth century, it had been several centuries since they produced a prominent composer. While several significant names emerged during this time period, this week we will look at two friends, Gustav Holst (1874–1934) and Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958).

Gustav Holst began his musical studies at an early age studying piano. While his father hoped he would pursue a career in performance, his struggles with neuritis in his right arm quickly ended any hope of pursuing that avenue. While he attended the Royal College of Music to study composition, Holst worked hard but his teachers didn’t find him to be amazing. Little did they know what he would become! While at the Royal College of Music, Holst met Vaughan Williams with whom he would become lifelong friends. Vaughan Williams introduced his new friend to the idea of using folk tunes as inspiration for his work and it transformed Holst’s compositional approach.

While many of you may know Holst from The Planets, today I want to look more closely at how he used folk in A Somerset Rhapsody. This lovely piece is based on traditional songs gathered in Somerset by Cecil Sharp, for whom the work is dedicated. It was first performed in Queen’s Hall in 1910. Holst was quite pleased with how it turned out. Below you can listen to this work. Can you think of any of Holst’s other works that use folk elements? 

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Norwegian Folk Found in Classical Music: Johan Svendsen

Last time we looked at how folk music influenced Edvard Grieg’s output. What about lesser-known composer Johan Svendsen (1840–1911)? He lived and composed during the same era as Grieg and, though not as nationalistic as Grieg, still found influence from his native land.

Svendsen grew up surrounded by music as his father was a military musician. He played violin for the first part of his career but ended up having to give it up when a nervous disorder in his hand prohibited his ability to perform.

During his time in Norway, Svendsen organized his own orchestra, the Norwegian Music Society, and became the second conductor for the Euterpe concerts. The time spent working alongside Grieg was one that both composers enjoyed and found fruitful.

Below are a few examples of Svendsen’s folk-inspired music. First, listen to the Norwegian Artists’ Carnival that depicts a Norwegian carnival in Rome. The artists are represented by Norwegian folk music while Rome is represented by an Italian folk theme. 

Of Svendsen’s folk-inspired output, the Norwegian Rhapsodies, Op. 17, 19, 21, and 22 are perhaps the most popular. They borrow many themes from Ludvig Mathias Lindeman’s Old and New Norwegian Mountain Melodies. Grieg used the same melodies as inspiration when writing his own Norwegian Dances. 

Join me next time as we travel to England and look at how Holst used folk in his compositions!