Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Flos Campi the Enigma

This essay was originally published in the Journal of the RVW Society, No. 42, July 2008. 

The deeper one peers into the life and works of Ralph Vaughan Williams, the more enigmatic they both become. Rarely in the post-romantic world has there been a major composer so reticent about sharing his inspirations, his beliefs, or even his inner life. Before his day it had already become common practice for major composers to be, in a sense, literary men as well. Perhaps the most exaggerated example of this can be found in Richard Wagner, whose writings seem an apotheosis for the 19th century German Romantic movement. In his typically paradigm-defining manner, Wagner wrote volume after volume detailing his artistic ideology, that his works might be framed within a specific context. This in turn set an example for many of the composers who followed. Tracing the history of European art music since the Romantic period, we find the necessity of a dual discipline emerging—what can be called the composer as critic, or even the composer as the primitive musicologist of his own work. By the mid-twentieth century it had become both commonplace and expected that a prominent composer should publish manifestoes on art in the form of concert notes, articles, or even books. Some used their literary gift as a means of promoting the musical theories behind their works, others as a means of defending themselves against newspaper critics, others still as an almost parallel art form. A fascinating library of works was thus developed over the decades, including books that are interesting almost entirely in their own right, only tangentially related to the music they took as their original raison d’etre. The writings of Erik Satie, Charles Ives’s Essays before a Sonata, Constant Lambert’s Music Ho!, and John Cage’s Silence are but a few examples of the many books that fascinate even on non-musical levels. Gone were the days when major composers were considered mere servants to aristocratic culture. Indeed, the modern world somewhat surprisingly expected composers to be more than mere musicians: it demanded political theorists, sociologists, even seers—very clearly men of the written word as well as the musical score.

It should be noted that this was a relatively recent development before the day of Vaughan Williams. In the century before his birth we cannot even imagine the notion of Mozart writing an extended philosophical text detailing with the implications of The Magic Flute, or propagating a treatise on The Marriage of Figaro which subsequently might have driven him into political exile. Before this, the idea of Bach writing a multiple volume summa on the spiritual and political importance of cantatas and passion settings is unthinkable. Still farther back, the notion that anyone in Tudor England would have considered the theological opinions of William Byrd, in any substantial and serious way, is at least mildly ridiculous.


This essay was originally published in The Journal of The RVW Society, No 36, June 2006. 

We had the experience but missed the meaning.
                                                                —T.S. Eliot

I remember once sitting in a graduate seminar, listening to presentations on 20th century composers, when a very bright student delivered a thirty-minute talk on the Fourth Symphony of Charles Ives. He went into great detail, but the detail was not exclusively about Ives, nor was it primarily about the piece in question. It was primarily about himself: his experience of the piece, his path toward understanding the complex musical material in front of him and, ultimately, his own philosophical and spiritual understanding of life, of which he more or less used the piece as a proof. By the end of the presentation, the other students had certainly learned about Charles Ives and his music, but if they were listening carefully, they learned even more about their classmate.

Regardless of whether or not such a presentation is of value in a purely musicological sense, it is important to note that this method of analysis is no mere student phenomenon. It is in fact a practical rule, albeit tacit, of musicology itself. Most scholars tend to make a strong pretense to objectivity, but a careful reading of standard musical biographies, general histories of music, and articles will demonstrate that the history of music is often used as an ideological battleground, fraught with the agenda of whatever scholar is at hand, rather than as a true discovery of the musician in question, thoughtfully and carefully placed in his or her own day and age. Thus we have a conflicting and even contradictory history of scholarship on any given composer or subject. For example, if we read enough we can learn of the Marxist Beethoven, the Fascist Beethoven, the Freudian Beethoven, or the Feminist deconstruction of Beethoven. Each of them will claim to give us the “true” Beethoven, or at least purport to have placed him properly for the first time. But in each we will also note that some quotations of the composer will have been exaggerated, others will have been suppressed; some important pieces will have been ignored; other, less significant pieces will have been suddenly discovered for the unheralded masterpieces they truly are. To anyone critically following the bias of the scholar, it will become obvious that in many such cases Beethoven is used less as a subject for study than as an object—even to the point of becoming a pawn in what is often a distinctly non-musical game.

All of the great composers have been subjected, over and again, to this sort of analysis. These days, it can sometimes seem as though it is the only analysis that is ever done. But despite all of this, the majority opinion of scholars comes to something like a general agreement on a reasonable position: Bach isn’t regarded as a covert atheist, nor is Beethoven regarded as a proto-Marxist by reasonable scholars, though both claims have been made. Likewise a reasonable consensus exists for most of the major composers in the Classical Canon.

Ralph Vaughan Williams, however, is an exception. He is not considered by the majority of scholars to have been one of the most important composers of his era. Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Ravel, even Shostakovich and Prokofiev tend to overshadow him in general survey texts. Remembered as a primary factor in the English Musical Renaissance of the early 20th century, he is studied closely only by a handful of scholars, and all too often relegated to a “second tier” of “nationalist” composers (most of whom are considered, rightly or wrongly, to be derivatives of the “greater” composers). Thus Vaughan Williams hasn’t been as hotly debated; fewer ideologues have tried to claim him as their own; fewer hostile scholars have tried to deconstruct him and his work. In one sense this can be good: in so being considered, his life and music have avoided a variety of misreadings. But in another way, this can be very bad, and stunt our understanding of his artistic achievement, particularly if all of the small circle of Vaughan Williams scholars hold one narrow ideology, or reductive outlook, unanimously. Imagining this happening to Beethoven demonstrates how detrimental it might be: if all of the major scholars agreed that he was a proto-Marxist, and every quotation of the great composer running counter to this hypothesis was overlooked, others exaggerated, our deeper understanding of his music would suffer. What would happen to interpretation of the Missa Solemnis? Likewise if Bach criticism was to be dominated by scholars without sufficient background in Christian thought, our understanding of his artistic achievement would be hindered, if not maimed irreparably. And yet this, without exaggerating matters, is analogous to the situation confronting the person who would seek to understand and appreciate the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Since the time of his death, there has been one scholarly opinion regarding the religious beliefs of Ralph Vaughan Williams: it is taken for granted that he was an atheist as a young man, and that he later drifted into agnosticism defined in a narrow and reductive sense, which he held for the rest of his life. Every other opinion, be it Hubert Foss’s flirtation with the word “pantheism” or Byron Adams’s suggestion that RVW used scripture in non-Christian ways, is merely a variation or development on this unanimously assumed theme. Over the last half century, the most frequently cited quotations on the subject have become so officially canonized and engrained that no one, to date, has gone back to look at the strength of the quotes themselves. What was their actual context? Who was the source? Are they being presented in a biased manner, or do they come from a biased source? What was Vaughan Williams actually referring to when he made them? None of these questions have been asked, nor has it been pointed out that the reductive view of Vaughan Williams’s supposed atheism and agnosticism has been hung, for over four decades, on the strength (or weakness) of only a handful of these quotes.

More interesting then this, however, are the quotations ignored, which seem to weaken (or in some cases contradict) the prevalent theory of VW’s beliefs. Finally, the pieces themselves speak very strongly, and only when we are willing to question the assumptions of the major scholars are we able to uncover the true depths of pieces such as the Five Mystical Songs, Sancta Civitas, the Dona Nobis Pacem, and The Pilgrim’s Progress.

The remedy is not so simple as illuminating the depths of pieces, however, as a great deal of dogma has been written about the religious beliefs of Ralph Vaughan Williams. Scholars seemingly without enough knowledge of Christianity, Church history, theology and mysticism have made pronouncements on the subject, buttressing a narrow understanding of VW’s beliefs with a great deal of misinformation, false assumption, and in some cases, misreadings of even the quotes they have thought supported their conclusions. It will therefore take a great deal of unraveling before the situation can be remedied.

Vaughan Williams the atheist?

In his brief overview of the generally prevalent attitudes towards Vaughan Williams’s beliefs, John Barr sensibly opts for a chronological exposition, documenting the major opinions held by scholars at each stage of the composer’s life.1 Beginning, then, with VW’s childhood, Barr points out that the composer was the son of an Anglican clergyman, who died while Ralph was little more than an infant. Significantly, he also mentions that his mother, Margaret Vaughan Williams, was a Christian with “strict evangelical leanings,” though he couldn’t remember exactly where he had read this. It is no surprise that it was difficult to locate the exact source for the quote, as it is not to be found in any of the primary materials a Vaughan Williams scholar might immediately reference for childhood material. Rather, the description of Vaughan Williams's mother as a “strict Christian” comes from Byron Adams’s article, “Scripture, Church and culture: biblical texts in the works of Ralph Vaughan Williams” published in 1996.2

Ralph Vaughan Williams's The Pilgrim's Progress in Context

a preliminary study
by Eric Seddon

This essay was originally published in the Journal of the RVW Society, No. 26, February 2003; the first in a series reevaluating the religious symbolism and drama in the works of RVW.  

From the time of its premiere at Covent Garden on 26 April 1951,  Ralph Vaughan Williams’s operatic masterpiece, The Pilgrim’s Progress, has been at the very least enigmatic for those who would seek to understand, categorize, support or criticize it. One of the first points of contention usually raised is the question of its suitability for the operatic stage. Its critics point to what they consider to be the static nature of the action, often described as independent tableaux rather than scenes flowing one from another. They point further to the content of those tableaux; suggesting that such noble, religious sentiment ought to be performed in cathedrals rather than opera houses. Finally, they point to the fact that the composer himself referred to the piece as a ‘Morality’ rather than as an ‘opera.’ All of these arguments tend to put the supporters of the piece on the defensive from the outset. One feels that, as a musicologist, one must deliver an apology for the piece rather than focus on its unique qualities. Indeed, to discuss how unique the work is seems dangerous, as it might further alienate the piece from a potential staging. To compound the problem, those of us who recognize the piece’s dramatic qualities, who actually find in it a supremely dramatic statement, often  find ourselves in  the most difficult of positions: trying to prove what to us seems self evident. The temptation even exists to get a bit frustrated with RVW himself for having named the piece a ‘Morality.’ It begins to seem that if he had just named it an ‘opera’ in the first place, he’d have saved us all a lot of trouble in trying to get it staged.
            This temptation, though, is better off ignored. The fact is that in designating the piece a “Morality,” the composer was illuminating the sub-genre of the piece rather than obscuring it, and that such a designation does not at all separate it from the general canon of operatic compositions. Thus,  instead of defending the piece by a discussion, primarily, of  its interior virtues in an isolated fashion, this article aims to do something slightly different: to place The Pilgrim’s Progress in the context of Vaughan Williams’s thought and in the context of the 20th century, and to compare and contrast the opera’s achievement with it’s most similar contemporaries. Two other composers’ operas in particular, produced in the same decade, will help to illuminate the unique, but necessarily operatic place in musical history The Pilgrim’s Progress occupies.
            During the 1950’s three major composers, none of them particularly known for operatic endeavors, each produced masterpieces for the stage. In September of 1951 Igor Stravinsky, who had long wanted to write an English language opera, produced The Rake’s Progress, an opera in the form of a “moral fable” based upon Hogarth’s 18th century paintings, with text by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman. Earlier in the same year, as part of the Festival of Britain, Ralph Vaughan Williams produced the results of four and a half decades of work when The Pilgrim’s Progress was staged at Covent Garden. The third of this interesting operatic triptych, Poulenc’s Dialogue des Carmelites, was produced in Milan’s famed La Scala in 1957. It was based on the true story of the execution of 16 Carmelite nuns during the French Revolution.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

James Russell Lowell on the Function of the Poet

For all of its mannerisms and 19th century zeitgeist, James Russell Lowell's 1855 lecture, "The Function of the Poet," remains an important document to American literature. It was delivered too early for him to have read or taken seriously the claims of Walt Whitman, which is a distinct advantage: he wasn't yet in the position to inadvertently soil himself by missing the brilliance of the New Yorker (a task which he accomplished later in his career). As a result, much of what he wrote resonates strongly and freely with Whitman's artistic goals.

Some of Lowell's historical ideas are admittedly off the mark, such as when he suggests that, in early times of any culture, the "poet and priest" were the same person. This isn't true, though it probably sounded good to undergraduates at the time. But all quibbles aside (quibbles have all too often buried important works) many of his points serve as prescient, and permanent, warnings to the nation. The essay as a whole reminds us that the function of poetry cannot be reduced to materialistic concerns--that art serves as more than a reminder, but also as a guide to that which is more important. More than this, he provides insight into the nature of how poetry relates the outer person to the inner person--a rather profound, and clearly stated, understanding which, when expanded, can show how damaged or incomplete one might be without the exercise of poetic thought and sensibilities.

Because he was less bombastic, in a sense, and certainly more contained in his scope than Emerson, Lowell's lectures don't have the same reach or grandiose complexity. There is a humility to them, despite his reputation, and because he is bold enough to present his ideas nakedly, both his minor errors and his more solid brilliance shine through clearly. These days, when scholars and artists are so afraid to make a mistake that every opinion is footnoted, or thought recycled, it's nice to read such risks. And in the end, if we don't all start risking our real voices, what will become of us? A nation of muted puppets, waiting for a master ventriloquist, is a macabre scene.