Ralph Vaughan Williams

Having first discovered this piece at school, and enjoyed listening to it ever since, I thought it would be interesting to take a more in-depth look at the piece and analyse how Vaughan Williams creates such an emotive and moving soundscape. 

You can listen to the piece here:

On Wenlock Edge is the first song in Vaughan Williams’ 1909 song cycle, which sets the six poems of Houseman’s 1896 collection A Shropshire Lad. It depicts a nostalgic and foreboding scene where a gale, meant to represent the struggles of life, howls around the Shropshire hills. Vaughan Williams’ fascination with folk melodies, and his desire to preserve them is evident here, as well as the influence of French Impressionism. The piece itself is orchestrated for tenor, piano, and string quartet. 

The opening vocal melody sets the mood for the piece. Despite the home key being G minor, emphasised by the melody rising and falling from and to a G natural, the melody misses out the minor 3rd of the scale, Bb, leaving a sense of ambiguity as to whether it is major or minor. This ambiguity is underlined by the melody also making up a pentatonic scale, which is the first hint of Vaughan Williams incorporating folk techniques into this piece. 

In terms of text setting, the repeated Gs and Ds also give the song a recitative-like feel, as well as reinforcing the completion of a phrase or stanza, such as in the final phrase “Twill soon be gone”. Recitative is a technique of text delivery whereby the singer adopts the rhythm and melodic shape of natural speech. This is commonly used in opera to quickly and efficiently deliver large chunks of dialogue, without having an aria which often involves very little actual text as so much of it is repeated! The melody is mainly conjunct (lacking in major leaps between notes), apart from the opening rising and falling 4th, and it is mostly sung syllabically (one note per syllable). Syllabic, conjunct text setting is another characteristic of folk music used by Vaughan Williams, as it allows the story or message behind the text to be easily understood by the audience, and, in a folkier performance setting, makes it as easy as possible for anyone to join in the singing!  

Despite the first two stanzas starting with largely pentatonic melodies, they both end with a descending chromatic idea, which brings the atmosphere down from the folky beginning to a more mournful, pensive feeling. Chromatic scales (either descending or ascending in semitones) are widely used to express darker emotions. Take a listen to the chromaticism in Schoenberg’s 'Pierrot Lunaire' used here express to extreme emotions. 

Another hint at Vaughan Williams’ folk influence is the range of the vocal line. It has a relatively narrow range from a D below middle C to the G above middle C. This is a typical characteristic of English folk music, as it meant the majority of people could sing the melody. This is also the case for folk shanties as I talked about in a previous article! Although it is not a song, Bartok’s 'Concerto for Orchestra' was also influenced by folk music and it too has a melody with a narrow range, demonstrating that this is a technique which can be applied not only to choral music, but also orchestral.

The texture is, as is often found in songs, melody-dominated homophony, with the voice leading the melody, and the strings and piano providing the atmosphere and background to the text. The strings are almost entirely homophonic throughout, often playing parallel chords, in varying inversions. For example, the opening two bars contain descending 6-3 chords, adding an air of uncertainty as there is no obvious key. Although parallel chords are characteristic of Vaughan Williams’ compositional style, he was also influenced by French Impressionism, having studied under Maurice Ravel shortly before composing this piece, and thus they can also be heard in “Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune” by Debussy, for example. 

The texture begins to vary a little more towards the end of the piece, as most of the piece is in full tutti (everyone playing at the same time), then in the middle there are moments when the strings stop playing altogether, and in the last two bars it is just piano. One could suggest that the way the piece gradually loses instruments conveys the destructive effect the howling gale has had on the hillside. The instruments do interact with the voice at some points, with the cello and piano doubling the voice in octaves, and in the first two verses the violin offers little fragmented interjections of melodies, occasionally also doubling the voice.

Vaughan Williams makes effective use of the Tenor soloist’s naturally powerful and slightly pained sonority to convey both the energy of the storm, and his fear of it. Having just one voice amongst the strings and piano gives it a desolate, solitary feel, enhancing the element of nostalgia, as well as the danger of the howling wind. In order to emulate the wind and its effect in his music, Vaughan Williams has used multiple extended techniques across the instruments. These include oscillating movement throughout the piece, extended trills and tremolo in the strings, rippling arpeggios, hemidemisemiquaver flourishes on the piano, and fragmented ascending melodies on the violin. 

The trills, oscillations, and tremolo help create the unsteady, uneasy atmosphere that comes with a strong wind. It adds some texture to what otherwise would’ve been a static note, just like wind adds a texture to air, and allows us to feel it, whereas otherwise it is intangible. Towards the end, the strings are asked to play ‘sul ponticello’, which means that the player will keep the bow close to the bridge of their instrument in order to produce high, airy overtones in keeping with the sonority of a harsh gale. 

To conclude this look at Vaughan Williams’ compositional techniques, you can clearly see the use of a range of melodic, textural and sonic techniques such as modal, folk influences in his melodies, parallel chords, and varying forms of oscillations to portray the howling gale, and narrator’s emotions. Although the recording linked at the top is fantastic, as it allows you to see the score as you listen, I personally enjoy the version sung by the late Anthony Rolfe Johnson (linked below) accompanied by the Duke Quartet and pianist Graham Johnson. Rolfe Johnson may have been a celebrated operatic tenor, however I think that what makes this recording so beautiful is the rustic tone created by his rural upbringing and years spent working as a farm manager. 

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