Sep 25, 2012
During a late summer adventure that took me to Rimini, Italy, I was able to stop over in London for a day to catch a concert at the Royal Albert Hall in the wonderful Proms series, which is one of the musical glories of that great city.
I’ve never been particularly taken with the symphonies of Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). I always loved his Serenade to Music, Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, and The Lark Ascending, but I questioned his stature as a major symphonist. However, I was able to reevaluate my retarded appreciation on the evening of August 16, when the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, under conductor Andrew Manze, presented the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Symphonies in a row. That may sound like a Vaughan Williams overdose, even for his committed fans, of which there were many present in the full hall. Not so. Manze was making a case for Vaughan Williams, and, even through the haze of my jet lag and the less than great acoustics of the cavernous venue, I was soon convinced that my neglect has been my loss.
I confess that it had been a considerable time since I listened to any Vaughan Williams symphony. This made the impact of the Manze concert all the greater. It was like getting smacked upside the head, brought abruptly out of a daze, not in a painful way, but with the sharp realization of the glories of this music. How can I have not heard these when I first encountered this music many decades ago? Who knows what finally sheds the scales and opens the ears?
Vaughan Williams certainly got a bad wrap from some of his fellow countrymen and contemporaneous musicians. Perhaps that helped to put me off. Philip Heseltine, who composed under the name Peter Warlock, supposedly likened Vaughan Williams’ “A Pastoral Symphony” (Symphony No. 3) to a cow staring over a fence. Even crueler, Aaron Copland apparently said that, “Listening to the Fifth Symphony of Ralph Vaughan Williams is like staring at a cow for forty-five minutes.”