Ralph Vaughan Williams
1872 - 1958
In June this year, in an open vote, members of the public were invited to give their verdict on the eight records they would choose as castaways on ‘Desert Island Discs’. Ralph Vaughan Williams' ‘The Lark Ascending’ was chosen in a special edition of the BBC Radio 4 programme as the track people would most like to take to the fictional remote island. The public’s choice shows that Vaughan Williams’ music is enduringly popular; it perhaps expresses something quintessentially English.
Listen to 'The Lark Ascending'
In 1911 Vaughan Williams wrote Five Mystical Songs, a setting of poems by George Herbert (1593 - 1633). Herbert was a high-born courtier and a poet. After struggling with the temptations of worldly fame and power, he was ordained at the age of 37, three years before his death. He is most widely remembered for his hymns, including ‘The God of Love My Shepherd Is’, ‘King of Glory, King of Peace’, ‘Let All the World in Every Corner Sing’ and ‘Teach Me, My God and King’.
Five Mystical Songs is written for choir and baritone soloist:
Easter describes the poet’s emotions when he contemplates the sacrifice made on the cross.
I got me flowers is a song of praise and an affirmation of faith.
Love Bade me Welcome expresses the poet’s spritual struggle in the language of human needs and emotions.
The Call, sung by the baritone soloist, expresses the calm assurance and acceptance of faith.
Antiphon (‘Let all the world in every corner sing’), sung by the choir, is a glorious hymn of praise, and a triumphant climax to the work.
About Ralph Vaughan Williams
Ralph Vaughan Williams was born on 12 October 1872 in Down Ampney, Gloucestershire. As a schoolboy, he studied piano, ‘which I never could play, and the violin, which was my musical salvation’. On leaving school he studied at the Royal College of Music. He read history and music at Trinity College, Cambridge, then returned to the RCM and studied composition with Hubert Parry.
Vaughan Williams was passionately interested in English folk songs and carols. He travelled the countryside, transcribing and preserving songs and melodies, which he incorporated into his own compositions, being fascinated by the beauty of the music and its history in the anonymous working lives of ordinary people.
Vaughan Williams was very supportive of amateur musicians and encouraged people to make their own music, however simple. In 1905 he founded the Leith Hill Music Festival, with which he remained involved all his life. He had a great gift for getting the very best out of singers and players; he would fly into a towering rage when the choir displeased him in some way, and then immediately temper it by telling a funny story. He was even known to throw down his baton in the middle of a concert (resulting in instant silence), saying ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we can do better than this!’
Ralph Vaughan Williams died on 26th August 1958, aged 85. He is buried in Westminster Abbey.
Cecilia McDowall’s cantata On Angel’s Wing, dedicated to the memory of the young composer Tim Stevenson, is a setting of John Clare’s poem ‘Love lives beyond the tomb’. The poet affirms the survival of love after death:
Love lives beyond the tomb,
And earth, which fades like dew!
'Tis heard in Spring
When light and sunbeams, warm and kind,
On angel's wing
Bring love and music to the mind.
Clare’s lyrical and moving poem is interspersed with joyful hosannas. The piece is scored for choir, soprano and baritone soloists, accompanied by piano and a single percussionist.
About Cecilia McDowall
Cecilia McDowall’s composition Music Inspired by the Shipping Forecast has recently been in the news on BBC radio and television. The well-known broadcast has been set to music to mark the 40th anniversary of the Portsmouth City Festival Choir.
Broadcast four times a day on BBC Radio 4, the shipping forecast is a vital source of information for sailors. Cecilia McDowall said: ‘There is great beauty in the rhythm. It's something that's mesmerized me for years……….There's something rather beguiling and mysterious about the shipping forecast which sounds so poetic, but at the same time is very crucial to people at sea. There is also this baffling thing, I don't understand it. 'Now falling, sometimes good'; I know the words mean something to somebody, but even though they don't mean anything to me, I enjoy them.’
‘Born in London in 1951, Cecilia McDowall has been described by the International Record Review as having 'a communicative gift that is very rare in modern music'. Her writing combines a rhythmic vitality with expressive lyricism and is, at times, intensely moving. She has won many awards as well as being short-listed for the 2005 and 2008 British Composer Awards. Her music has been commissioned and performed by leading choirs, including the BBC Singers, ensembles and at major festivals both in Britain and abroad and has been broadcast on BBC Radio and worldwide.’
Regina Coeli by Cecilia McDowall - Christopher G Keene conducting Euphony.
Music Inspired By The Shipping Forecast - BBC Report
1919 - 2011
George Shearing enjoyed an international reputation as a pianist, arranger and composer. He was equally at home on the concert stage and in jazz clubs, and in later years became increasingly involved in choral writing.
Songs and Sonnets from Shakespeare was commissioned by the Mostly Madrigal Singers, Illinois, and was first performed by them on 9th July 1999. The performance was guest-conducted by John Rutter, with Shearing himself at the piano. Rutter was a valued member of the production team; in Shearing’s own words, ‘one of the very best choral writers and directors in the business….a man whom I am honoured to be able to call a very dear friend.’ He went on to say, ‘And if Mr. Shakespeare hadn’t done HIS part in the first place, we’d all be in the soup. Enjoy!’
It would be difficult to disobey him. These seven songs, arranged for choir, piano and double bass, which John Rutter ‘instantly fell in love with’ and described as ‘so fresh and youthful, so witty, tender and varied’, cannot fail to delight singers and listeners alike.
A brief biography of the composer
George Shearing was born in Battersea, South London, in 1919, the youngest of nine children. Blind from birth, he began picking out melodies on a piano at the age of three and was soon able to play any tune by ear.
His only formal musical education was at Linden Lodge School for the Blind, where he studied for four years and began playing classical music. Though he was subsequently offered several scholarships,Shearing opted to launch his career by performing at a local pub, the Mason's Arms in Lambeth, for "25 bob a week" (£1.25 in today’s money), playing piano and accordion. He also joined an all-blind jazz orchestra.
In 1947 Shearing moved to New York, where he became one of America’s most popular recording and performing artists. His touch was ‘feathery, bright, and gentle’, and his piano style hinted at the influence of classical composers such as Debussy, Satie and Delius. Shearing played Mozart concertos with many American symphony orchestras. He became an internationally acclaimed artist, receiving many honours on both sides of the Atlantic, including the prestigious Ivor Novello Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993, and a Knighthood for services to music in 2007. He had an apartment in New York and a cottage in the Cotswolds, and regarded London as ‘home’ whenever he performed there.
George Shearing died in February this year, aged 91.