Audio excerpt-conclusion of RVW 9th Symphony (Haitink/LSO)
HV and RVW
Composers of similar generations, nationalities or styles are often paired as an indication of shared characteristics. Bach and Handel, Haydn and Mozart, Schumann and Brahms, Debussy and Ravel, Mahler and Strauss, Reich and Glass are but some of these well known dynamic duos. There is often an accompanying game/discussion that goes with these pairings which Leo Smit used to call “Who’s Better?” If my father, Hans Vigeland, was ever involved in such a conversation, his nominees were always, “Ralph Vaughn Williams or Benjamin Britten?” And his answer would be an immediate “RVW”.
He backed this up quite substantially as well, performing Sancta Civitas, Dona Nobis Pacem and the Fantasia on Christmas Carols with his church choir in Buffalo, New York as well as being intrumental in bringing the 82 year old composer to Cornell University in 1954 for a concert of his music with The Buffalo Philharmonic, of which he was the Assistant Manager at the time. The rehearsals took place in Buffalo and dad was a constant presence at them. I was too young at the time to know the significance of this event in his life, but he often spoke of it in later years.
Britten disliked Vaughn Williams’ music quite intensely and notably avoided having it performed at Aldeburgh during the older composer’s lifetime. Interestingly, there is much documentation of Vaughn Williams attending many Britten premieres in the 40’s and 50’s. There are many reasons for Britten’s dislike of the older composer but they surely stemmed from Britten’s three years as a student at the Royal College of Music where his examiners included RVW. Britten came to the school already known as something of a prodigy as well as being the student of Frank Bridge, a composer RVW disliked, calling him “brilliant”, and not as a term of admiration.
“Brilliant” is, of course, a term that was often applied to Britten in his early years, and like Bridge, not always in a complimentary way. Its application was used to indicate a certain quality of surface as well as the startling fluency of Britten’s gifts. (The Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge of 1937 was composed in three weeks). William Walton, a composer only 11 years Britten’s senior, as opposed to RVW who was 41 years older than Britten, admitted to Britten that he was much intimidated by BB’s precocity. Britten was also an excellent pianist which contributed to his general aura of virtuosity.
Britten was also part of a generation, along with Auden, his one time close associate, which was trying to become more closely attuned with Continental European trends in the arts and saw Vaughn Williams as the perfect example of English provinciality.Strikingly, it was Alban Berg whom Britten thought to study with in the early 30’s. (Though it should also be noted that Vaughn Williams went to study with Ravel for a few months when he was in his 40's!)
My father’s view of Britten was fundamentally like RVW’s of Bridge (and perhaps Britten too). Schönberg articulated the dichotomy in his article “Heart and Brain in Music”, though the point of Schönberg’s article was to assert that the great composer sees no opposition between the two. Be that as it may, the opposition is often personified even within the work of the same composer, for example in JS Bach; a “Heart” piece, Gottes Zeit is die Allerbeste Zeit/a “Brain” piece, Die Kunst der Fuge.
For my father, the expressive content of music was contained or channeled in certain kinds of movement, sequence and texture which gained their power through a physiological association. He believed in Schweitzer’s attribution of precise expressive meanings to musical figures in Bach, for example the descending chromatic ground of the B Minor Mass Crucifixus as a figure of grief. And this is what he heard in Vaughn Williams which he did not in Britten, at least not as commonly.
Certainly Britten was the more “sophisticated” composer and he pushed himself, unsuccesfully at least to the European avant-garde, to assert his role as an international figure. But his work has survived since his death, flourished in fact, to judge from the remarkable number of performances around the world in 2013, the centennial of his birth. But there’s also something in Vaughn Williams’ music that surprises in a way that doesn’t occur in Britten’s-it sometimes escapes its own circumference. In 1969, my parents spent the fall months in London and I joined them at the Christmas holidays. We went to the Barbican with Ursula Vaughn Williams, the composer's second wife, to hear a performance of RVW’s 9th Symphony, his last, premiered 4 months before his death. Much of the piece seems a kind of valedictory summoning of past works. Motifs, harmonic progressions well known in other pieces make their presence but often to no new effect. And then in the last minute something extraordinary happens -three saxophones emerge from a widely yet densely spaced E Major triad in the strings to play a closed position 6/4 F major chord in the middle register. The strings swell and subside amidst harp glissandi, overwhelming the saxophones. It happens twice and then the piece ends. It jolted me then, as I know it did my father. It still does. The piece had escaped its own self.