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.

Vaughan Williams, for his own part, might have found the era in which he came of age to be at least mildly ridiculous as well. Perhaps he found writing about his own work too narcissistic, perhaps he found it too intrusive.  He did what was expected of a major composer, publishing program notes, criticisms, lectures and books—but a close reading of them certainly makes one wonder whether he didn’t disdain the discipline or see it as somewhat irrelevant to the business of music-making. His program notes, especially for the more emotionally challenging and darker works, are filled with self-deprecation, quips, and almost a contempt for the exercise at hand. In this way, RVW seems to have deliberately worked at odds with the normal function of 20th century program notes: Whereas composers like Ives, Cage, Messiaen and others gave notes to clarify their intent, providing the listener with a context for the hearing of a work, VW’s tend to cloud the meaning, cloaking the intent behind a bluff, mock-disinterested demeanor. Of his writings, it may be said that the most philosophical and revealing are those dealing with folk-song. There he seriously puts forth a case for great music as being necessarily local in origin. But this, it must be stressed, is related to music in general; of his own works, when he is not self-deprecating, he is rather remarkably quiet. Had he composed under the political conditions of Stalinist Russia, musicologists might have assumed this reticence to have been out of political tact or obvious fear of the gulag, so strange is it. Yet though Vaughan Williams lived in free society, still there is a similar smokescreen between the genesis and meaning of his pieces and their audience. The flippancy of his program notes to the tumultuous Sixth Symphony is matched only by his silence regarding so many of his profound pieces with text. No reasoning is offered for the selections from Whitman for the Sea Symphony, nor are we giving a glimpse of his rationale for the libretti of Dona Nobis Pacem or Hodie. What prompted him to write these pieces when he did? Why did he select the texts and arrange them in these particular configurations? We are left to speculate on these puzzles, with the knowledge that more often than not, the composer himself chastised many of the critical attempts to elucidate them. In the study of Vaughan Williams’s art we are therefore perpetually accompanied by a twofold enigma: First, what is the deeper meaning of the piece before us? And second, why was the composer so reticent about our knowing his inspiration for it? The first might be answered convincingly, if subjectively, while the second is perhaps beyond our reach at present, and maybe permanently. 

We are left with the dilemma that Vaughan Williams’s approach to what might be called the literary dimension of his career was atypical, enigmatic, and perhaps even counterproductive to a deeper understanding of works in a purely musicological sense. This can be generally said to extend over the majority of the more significant works in his canon. But among these works is one veiled and unusual, yet also important enough to the rest of his output that it might be called a central enigma. That piece is Flos Campi, a suite for viola, orchestra, and wordless chorus, first performed in Queen’s Hall on 10 October 1925 by the Queen’s Hall Orchestra under Sir Henry Wood, with Lionel Tertis taking the solo viola part.[1] The history of this piece, and the symbolism hinted at in it, seem to me significant to those who would investigate the complete works of RVW. This brief essay is an attempt to place the symbolic importance of the piece in the light of his complete works.

Like so many of RVW’s works referencing biblical texts, Flos Campi is a mixture of various religious strands that weave throughout English history. I hope that the many previous articles of mine have put to rest the notion that RVW’s involvement with scriptural texts was merely an act of veneration for the prose of the Authorized Version. If there is any remaining doubt, however, the very text and title to Flos Campi should eradicate it. Here the Authorized version makes an appearance in the score, but only as a translation of the primary source text, which is, somewhat surprisingly for an non-Catholic Englishman of RVW’s age, taken from the Song of Songs in the Latin Vulgate (called the “Song of Solomon” in the KJV). This is a very odd and a perhaps cryptic choice of texts by Vaughan Williams. The Vulgate was St. Jerome’s translation of the scriptures, standard for the Western Church for over a thousand years and monumentally influential upon European history—it was Gutenberg’s printing of the Vulgate in 1456, for example, that in so many ways spurred modern history.[2] Yet by Vaughan Williams’s day several centuries of Protestant rule had long supplanted the once historically authoritative air of St. Jerome’s work with the equally venerated King James or Authorized Version. Yet in the score of Flos Campi, the Vulgate takes precedence while the Authorized Version is quoted only as an aid to translation. Why RVW chose to do this is puzzling and is something the present article cannot fully answer. At the very least, however, it removes the piece from the realm of the merely nationalistic—the Vulgate being international in its influence, and to certain segments the English population of RVW’s age, even foreign. 

Annoyed with the initial critical response and misinterpretations of the work (which was paradoxically a self-generated situation VW might easily have spared himself, had he been more forthcoming about his artistic intent), Vaughan Williams at last decided to publish some terse notes to the piece, criticizing those who had missed his meaning, yet offering no real firm direction for interpretation. Thus he writes for a performance in 1927:

When this work was first  produced two years ago, the composer discovered that most people were not well enough acquainted with the Vulgate (or perhaps even its English equivalent) to enable them to complete for themselves the quotations from the ‘Canticum Canticorum’, indications of which are the mottoes at the head of each movement of the Suite.[3]

The ‘English equivalent’ of which he speaks is a bit confusing. Most scholars would probably agree that the closest English-language equivalent to the Vulgate is the Douay-Rheims Bible, published by exiled Roman Catholics between 1582 and 1610.[4] Yet this is probably not what RVW here refers to; more likely he is equating the Vulgate and the Authorized Version, under the suggestion that the latter had assumed the public and cultural mantle of the former in the English speaking world. Still, like so many of the composer’s statements, it remains at least a bit unclear.

VW goes on to bluntly refute both the idea that Flos Campi is about “buttercups and daisies” or that it has any “ecclesiastical basis.” He then reiterates the quotations in both Latin and English while interspersing several very basic musical comments, mentioning the opening theme, some orchestration, a “march”, a “persistent rhythm on the percussion.” None of this brief analysis, however, gives any hint as to a more substantial interpretation of the program. The piece is not “buttercups and daisies”, nor is it “ecclesiastical”, but what is it and what does it mean? Vaughan Williams does not and perhaps will not say: we are left with the words, the notes, and the context within his life and career; nothing else.

As for context, in many ways Flos Campi can be seen, somewhat remarkably, as part of a symbolic centerpiece to Vaughan Williams’s many pieces containing Christian mystical symbolism. Earlier articles of mine have gone into some analysis of this, most specifically regarding the Eucharistic symbolism of the Five Mystical Songs and Dona Nobis Pacem, and the symbolism found in Sancta Civitas. In some ways, Flos Campi is their symbolic meeting point. Where Sancta Civitas outlines the apocalypse as a precursor to the Wedding Feast of the Lamb, in a broad civic or corporate sense, Flos Campi deals with marital ecstasy in the more personal sense—both in yearning preparation and in erotic fulfillment.[5] And as I have detailed in an article on The Pilgrim’s Progress, VW uses the theme indicating mystical union in Flos Campi as symbolic of the Delectable Mountains in Bunyan.[6] Taken chronologically we see Vaughan Williams building upon his symbolism and contrasting the personal with the corporate, masculine subjects with feminine—Five Mystical Songs (1911) followed by the Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains (1922)[7]; then Flos Campi and Sancta Civitas, both significantly in the same year of 1925; Magnificat (1932),  Dona Nobis Pacem (1936), and finally, The Pilgrim’s Progress (1951). It is easy, therefore, to see the chronological centrality of Flos in the midst of all of these heavily theological and mystical texts.

It is important to remember that Vaughan Williams understood the allegorical meaning of the Song of Songs, as demonstrated by a letter to Mrs. Joyce Hooper from 31 October 1951, wherein he wrote:

As regards my other point, human love has always been taken as a symbol of man’s relation to divine things. The Song of Solomon has been treated in all of the Churches as a symbol of the relationship of God to man. And what about Isaiah and his “beloved’s Vineyard”? And is not the Church in the Book of Revelations always symbolized as the bride?

Thus the path is legitimately opened to read Flos Campi as an expression of mystical theology—the piece was perhaps even meant by RVW to be experienced in precisely this way. Taken with  two other scriptural works of the same period, we have a remarkable outline: Flos Campi may be taken as the relation between God and Man (in an intensely personal, though universal sense); Sancta Civitas may likewise be seen as expressing the relation between God and Humanity as a whole (in a corporate sense), while in VW’s emphasis of an erotic element in the score of the Magnificat, Mary is presented as both mother of God and bride of Christ (a very Catholic understanding of Mary as a symbol of the whole Church). The ultimate ‘meaning’ of femininity, of masculinity, and of humanity and society, wrapped in and penetrated by the presence of God’s love in the midst of tumultuous human history all seem to have been presented by RVW in the same era. A thread runs through them, unifying the three pieces into a Triptych of sorts. It would be fascinating to hear them performed on the same program.

It is worth pointing out that Flos, though influential upon his later works, seems to have puzzled almost everyone. As VW himself implied in his later program note to the piece, the meaning was initially missed altogether. On a musical level, too, even the closest of friends were baffled. Gustav Holst confessed that he could not penetrate the piece or fully enter into it.[8]  And as James Day has kindly pointed out to me in an email, even the instrumentation seems to be calculated to keep the piece a secret, so unlikely is it that such orchestration might be regularly assembled in concert for a piece of comparatively short duration.         

An analysis of the piece itself, how the music goes about expressing the words in quotation above the movements, is beyond the scope of this brief essay.  Context among other works, we have seen, can be understood in a theological sense, as the reading of the mystical symbolism seems to offer a profound means of understanding the works. But as always with Vaughan Williams, original intention and inspiration are terribly difficult to glean. His well-documented reticence, the obscure and incomplete data of his religious beliefs, and the veil of time have clouded what we can realistically discuss. Furthermore, there is at least the potential that Flos Campi may have been written for other purposes than its apparent theological symbolism. Currently, there are rumors circulating among scholars of a more sordid variety, touching upon this and others of RVW’s pieces—of potentially cryptic and scandalous personal meanings. Perhaps the rumors are true, and those who knew the composer will not have published everything they yet intend to; perhaps our image of the composer is not exactly the reality of the man who was. The potential that some new information, sordid or otherwise, might yet change our interpretation of these pieces dramatically certainly exists, and it is wise to qualify our readings of these pieces as precisely that: they are readings of the symbolism of the works taken as a whole, and not intended to necessarily define Vaughan Williams’s intent. But it seems reasonable to propose that Vaughan Williams’s reticence might have been for this very purpose: perhaps he wanted the meanings of his pieces to extend beyond the specific condition under which they were composed.  And perhaps he knew, or hoped, that they would in some way touch people in a more universal sense.

With this in mind it will be fascinating to watch as our understanding of Flos Campi deepens. Although it is such a short, odd piece, it fits into an impressive symbolic center to so much of RVW’s work. I wrote at the beginning of this brief essay that the further one studies RVW’s life and works, the more enigmatic both of them become. I suspect that Flos Campi is in some ways part of the central enigma of RVW’s life and career: a secret door with a great deal more behind it than we know. Perhaps this door is destined to remain closed—and perhaps this is as it should be. But regardless of this potential, and heedless of rumors spread whether true or false, the cumulative symbolic effect of the triptych of Flos Campi, Sancta Civitas, and Magnificat is unique indeed in the history of music, and ought to be acknowledged as a great achievement. Taken together, they speaks beyond the circumstances of one individual, to a profoundly beautiful expression of something touching upon the mystery of our existence.   


[1] Kennedy, 503.
[2] As George Steiner put it: “With Jerome’s readings of Hebrew and their implicit theory of translation, we stand, in a sense, at the doors of modernity.” From his Introduction to the KJV, Everyman edition,  xv.
[3] Kennedy, 503
[4] Steiner, xvii.
[5] I have been taken to task, in private, by more than one theologian for my use of the word ‘erotic’ in such instances. There seems to be an ongoing debate over  the proper understandings of the Greek categories of love and their relative compatibility (or lack thereof) with Christian theology in both Catholic and Protestant circles—and often the issue is discussed without full agreement between rival theological understandings. If it helps such theologians to take my use of the word ‘erotic’ for simply ‘sexual’, I have no objection, but will continue to use the latter term for a number of reasons: first, it is the term that has been used regarding VW’s work for multiple generations now, and second, in light of a great deal of scholarship relating to poetry, scripture, and the arts, it seems both too much of a quibble to constantly redefine terms and too confusing to change it. That Pope Benedict XVI’s first encyclical (Deus Caritas Est, 2005) uses the term ‘erotic love’ in a virtuous sense would seem to me at least to indicate that a fear of the term as incompatible with Christianity is intellectually obsolete. But I leave it to qualified theologians to debate their own discipline—my only hope here is for simplicity and clarity.
[6] See “Turn Up My Metaphor and Do Not Fail” from the March 2007 Issue of the RVW Journal.
[7] The Shepherds does not contain the thematic link with Flos that VW was later to add to the full version of The Pilgrim’s Progress, but the mystical/erotic symbolism is still to be found in the arrow plunged into Pilgrim’s heart before his crossing of the River of Death.
[8] Kennedy, 186.

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