Portraits of a Mind Op.54

Composed: 2022
Duration: 20 minutes
Scoring: Tenor, String Quartet and Piano
First performance: 21st October 2022, Oxford Lieder Festival performed by Alessandro Fisher, Navarro String Quartet and pianist, William Vann.

Commissioned by the RVW Society to celebrate Vaughan Williams’ 150th Anniversary.

The music of Vaughan Williams has been a constant companion throughout my life and so I was especially delighted when the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society offered me a commission to write a work to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth. The commissioners were generous in giving me the freedom to decide what kind of work I would like to compose and I immediately suggested a chamber song cycle. Over the past twenty years I have written many cycles with different instrumental combinations but only once have I composed a cycle for piano quintet and tenor: ‘Songs of Eternity and Sorrow’ based on poems by A.E.Housman and commissioned by Finzi Friends’ in 2004. Whilst I was composing this work I was mindful of RVW’s masterpiece ‘On Wenlock Edge’. Indeed, it is this work that in my opinion, put the chamber song cycle on the map here in England: composers such as Ivor Gurney and Warlock would later add to this wonderful genre.
In view of this sesquicentennial commission, it seemed entirely appropriate that I should return to this combination of instruments for my new cycle. The search for suitable texts to set is the most rewarding part of the process of composition and as the focus of the work would be Vaughan Williams himself, I wanted to explore the principal elements that informed his creativity and so ‘paint’ a musical portrait in which each song reflects a different aspect of his creative mind. To discover these elements one need go no further than Vaughan Williams’ aesthetic creed: ‘the object of art is to reach out to the ultimate realities through the medium of beauty. The duty of the composer is to find the ‘mot juste’. It does not matter if this word has been said a thousand times before, as long as it is the right thing to say at the right moment’. After many months spent reading a wide range of poetry I eventually found several poems that drew upon the subjects I wished to present, namely: Nature; The Meaning of Art; Love; Death and Transcendence.
The work began to take shape when Martin Murray (a fellow member of the RVW Society) sent me a poem by George Meredith that he thought I might wish to consider. I did not realise, until I looked at the score of RVW’s famous work The Lark Ascending that it had been inspired by Meredith’s poem and that Vaughan Williams had placed three stanzas at the head of the published score: he never set the poem, simply because it was too long and I too, put the poem aside for the same reason. However, I do wonder whether a poem finds me rather than the other way around and as it turned out, this one was no different. When I looked at it more closely, I began to realise that it might be possible to cut it down to a more manageable size while keeping the essential narrative intact. Of course, this is not something I normally do: after all one only has to remember A.E. Housman’s reaction to RVW’s abridgement of his poem, ‘Is My Team Ploughing’! Nevertheless, I made the cuts and ended up with a text I felt I could use. I also kept intact the opening lines that prompted RVW’s work: He rises and begins to round / He drops the silver chain of sound / Of many links without a break / As up he wings the spiral stair. Vaughan Williams’ inspired idea of using the violin as a musical metaphor for the Skylark’s song also inspired the instrumental opening of my cycle and so provides an intentional aural ‘link’ in the ‘chain of sound’ between RVW’s work and my own. [Fig.1] Meredith’s poem is a pastoral evocation of nature in which a lone Skylark symbolises nature and the human spirit, freed from its earthly concerns. Soaring high above the contours of the landscape the lark observes the spectacle of the world below and sings for humanity its song of the earth. For those who are willing to listen, it is the ‘love of earth that he instils’.
The subject of Ursula Vaughan Williams’ poem Man makes delight his own is the immutable nature of artistic creation. Written the year before her marriage to RVW in 1953, the poem is a loving tribute to her future husband. The text’s ruminative narrative is established in the opening lines and mirrored in the long-breathed vocal melody: Man makes delight his own / endless creation of his labouring days / captures for human terms of all he has known. The introduction’s contemplative mood gives way to a contrasting section where a rapt vocal melody is supported by a flowing accompaniment. [Fig. 2] This passage reaches an impassioned vocal climax on the words unchanged for ever stays. An instrumental tutti follows that echoes the poet’s ecstatic realisation, before winding down in both tempo and dynamics in preparation for the final stanza, ending with a reprise of the meditative opening music.
As a song composer, RVW was naturally drawn to the poets of his age: early songs include settings of Browning, Tennyson, Swinburne and in particular, the Pre-Raphaelite poet, D.G Rossetti. These philosophical and inward-looking poets were later replaced in his affection by the pastoral imagery of the Scottish poet Robert Louis Stevenson. This new poetic discovery produced ‘Songs of Travel’, composed in 1904. Given the importance of this work in RVW’s output, I decided to see if I could find a poem by Stevenson that could be included as part of the cycle. The third song, From a Railway Carriage proved to be an ideal setting, as it acts as its energetic scherzo. Written in 1885, it comes from the poet’s collection ‘A Child’s Garden of Verses’. Viewed through the eyes of a child, the poem arouses all the excitement of a rapidly changing landscape as seen from a moving train. Stevenson sets up a constant rhythmic flow that provides the impetus for his spritely narrative: Faster than fairies, faster than witches / Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches / And charging along like troops in a battle. To create a sense of exhilaration, the animated vocal line is underpinned by a brisk moto perpetuo, full of semiquavers and alternating time signatures: the music’s tritonal harmony adding to the magical and bewitching atmosphere of the text. [Fig.3]

In 1904, RVW composed the ‘House of Life’ cycle: settings of poems by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. At the same time, Rossetti’s sister Christina, inspired RVW to compose a ‘Symphonic Rhapsody for Orchestra’ based on her poem Echo. In a programme note for the first performance in March of that year, several lines from the opening stanza were printed. Come to me in the silence of the night / Come in the speaking silence of a dream / Come with soft rounded cheeks and eyes as bright As sunlight on a stream / Come back in tears O memory, hope, love of finished years. Sadly, the manuscript of the Orchestral Rhapsody has since been lost. Her deeply moving poem recalls the memories of a departed loved one whose presence can only be experienced in dreams. The poet’s exploration of the conflict between longing and joy; reality and memory and life and death, provide an inner tension to the poetic narrative. It is these tensions that I have attempted to capture in my setting, principally by alternating tranquil and reflective passages with intense and more passionate ones. In the second stanza beginning, Oh dream how sweet, too sweet, too bitter sweet / Whose wakening should have been in Paradise, the poet intimates that dreams can be sweeter than memories. But even this is illusory as the poet’s dreams quickly turn from sweetness to bitter sweetness. To express the poignancy of these words, the vocal line is sustained by a mesmeric ostinato figure in the piano and lush harmonies in the strings. [Fig.4] At the climax in the final verse on the words, Come back to me in dreams the passionate music, heard in the opening stanza, returns and ends the song in a resigned mood of sadness and longing.
Of all the poet’s that inspired RVW, it is perhaps Walt Whiman with whom he had the closest spiritual bond. Whitman’s deep humanism and belief in ‘cosmic unity’ helped to shape RVW’s creative vision. I too, have been drawn to Whitman and in 2019 I composed a song cycle to commemorate the bicentenary of the poet’s birth. For these reasons, it seemed fitting to set a further poem by Whitman that would conclude the cycle and ‘frame’ these portraits of Vaughan Williams. For me, the short lyric A Clear Midnight captures the essence of RVW’s spiritual convictions and brings the cycle full circle: the freedom of the human spirit symbolised by the Lark’s ascent in the first song, now mirrored by Whitman’s faith in the Soul’s transcendence.

The song opens with a short introduction before the singer intones the opening line, This is thy hour O soul, thy free flight into the wordless. [Fig.5] On the final word, ‘wordless’ the chant like music gives way to a forward-moving piano accompaniment, built from alternating groups of quavers and not dissimilar in sound to the introductory music heard in the cycle’s opening song. This tranquil music evokes the reflective but affirmative vocal narrative, Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson done / Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, as it moves towards the return of the introductory music over which the vocal line ponders, the themes thou lovest best / Night, sleep, death and the stars.

Portraits of a Mind will receive its premiere at the Oxford Lieder Festival in a lunchtime concert broadcast live by BBC Radio 3 from the Holywell Music Room on the 21st October at 1pm. It will be performed by the tenor Alessandro Fisher, the Navarra String Quartet and pianist William Vann.