Vaughan Williams 150th: Choral works with Orchestra
Celebrations for Ralph Vaughan Williams’s 150th anniversary in 2022 are officially launched on 26 February. We take the opportunity to explore his larger-scale choral works with orchestra, including Dona Nobis Pacem, Five Tudor Portraits and the Serenade to Music.
Music published by Oxford University Press is promoted here under license by Boosey & Hawkes.
2022 marks the 150th anniversary of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s birth and the official launch is scheduled for 26 February, timed with the opening of a complete cycle of his symphonies in Manchester shared between the Hallé Orchestra and BBC Philharmonic. Anniversary highlights will be announced at the launch, and further performances added as planned events in the summer and 2022/23 seasons are progressively confirmed.
> Keep in touch at www.rvw150.org.uk
We take the opportunity to explore Vaughan Williams’s larger-scale choral works with orchestra in the Oxford University Press catalogue. At a time when war is again a current threat, the composer’s powerful Dona Nobis Pacem remains a major pacifist statement. Scored for soprano and baritone soloists, SATB, and full or reduced orchestra, this 40-minute work provides a rewarding challenge for choirs with some of the composer's most potent music.
Similarly, Benedicite, for soprano solo, SATB chorus, and orchestra, has forceful and dynamic sections with thick choral-orchestral textures, which are then juxtaposed against more solemn passages. Magnificat, for contralto solo, female chorus, and flute and chamber orchestra, though not for liturgical use, is an unusual setting of the well-known Biblical text. After an ethereal opening, a contralto/mezzo-soprano soloist sings the Magnificat text while the female chorus interpolates with other texts in praise of the Virgin Mary.
Much of Vaughan Williams’ choral output draws on popular texts by English writers and poets. Serenade to Music in its version for SATB choir and orchestra (or reduced orchestra), a sublimely beautiful choral meditation on the nature of music, is a setting of text from Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. This tender and much-loved work is moderately difficult for choirs. A Song of Thanksgiving, for soprano solo, speaker, SATB and orchestra is a powerful yet very approachable work that celebrates the Allies victory in World War II. Comprising seven movements, it sets texts from the Bible alongside words by Shakespeare and Kipling, lending the work a sense of timelessness and grandeur.
Well worth rediscovering for the anniversary are the Five Tudor Portraits, forming a bucolic and bawdy suite that offers a showcase for a choir happy to tackle its archaic text and often-intricate writing. Setting poems by the early Tudor poet and rector John Skelton, Vaughan Williams responds inventively to the colourful characters, including an ageing lady publican, a deceased pet sparrow and the crafty gallant Jolly Rutterkin in the exciting final scherzo.
Sinfonia Antartica, his seventh symphony, draws from the music Vaughan Williams provided for the film Scott of the Antarctic in 1947. The composer skilfully evokes the sparse beauty and grandeur of the landscape with a SA chorus, large orchestra and percussion section, including - famously - a wind machine, to create a work of great power and intensity. The music can now also be experienced in its original context through screening of the film with live orchestra: the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Martyn Brabbins performs the score with the Scott of the Antarctic film at the Barbican on 11 March - a major highlight of the 150th celebrations.
An innovative and imaginative choral arrangement of The Lark Ascending provides a new challenge for mixed choir. Taking the original solo violin as its starting point, this Paul Drayton arrangement sensitively sets George Meredith's poem and combines this with wordless vocal lines and vocal solos, preserving the texture and timeless effect of the original.
For a highly-varied journey through the seasons, explore Folk Songs of the Four Seasons. This cantata features sixteen folk song settings, bound together in seasonal groupings, to take the listener through charmingly light-hearted, then darker, more haunting moments. This adaptable work is available in different versions – with orchestra/chamber orchestra, or strings and piano. A new critical edition of the work becomes available in April 2022.
> Listen to Vaughan Williams choral works on Spotify
> Read the full RVW 150th Brochure here