03 March 2015

Through Lent with Vaughan Williams (14): On
Wenlock Edge, 2, ‘From far, from eve and morning’

Trinity Street, Cambridge, on a quiet Sunday afternoon … Vaughan Williams was an undergraduate and AE Housman a Fellow of Trinity College Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

For my reflections and devotions during Lent this year, each day I am reflecting on and invite you to listen to a piece of music or a hymn set to a tune by the great English composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958).

Throughout this week, I am listening to On Wenlock Edge, a setting by Vaughan Williams of six poems from AE Housman’s Shropshire Lad.

I was recalling yesterday [2 March 2015] that I was first introduced to the music of Vaughan Williams when I was a 19-year-old and I was staying in Wilderhope Manor on Wenlock Edge in Shropshire in what became my first memorable introduction to the great English composers.

I spent some time on Wenlock Edge and in the neighbouring villages before hitch-hiking back to Lichfield – a journey of about 50 miles. Back in Lichfield, I experienced a self-defining moment in the chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, and was invited for the first time to the Folk Masses in the Dominican Retreat Centre at Spode House, near Rugeley, about six miles north of Lichfield.

Ever since, the music of Vaughan Williams, especially his setting in On Welock Edge, have been associated with my understanding of spiritual growth and development.

This morning [3 March 2015], I am listening to ‘From far, from eve and morning,’ the second of the six settings by Vaughan Williams of these poems by AE Housman (1859-1936), published in 1896.

In reacting to the Boer War, in which his brother Herbert was killed, Housman powerfully anticipated the horror and futility of World War I, and his poems would find fresh relevance of with the outbreak of World War I.

His landscape is a mythical, idealised Shropshire, similar to the Wessex of the novels of Thomas Hardy. His dominant themes are love, and a post-industrial pastoral nostalgia, infused with expressions of disillusionment at the sacrifice of the young soldiers going to war, never to return.

Vaughan Williams composed On Wenlock Edge – a cycle of six songs for tenor, piano and string quartet – in 1909, a year after he had spent three months in Paris studying under Maurice Ravel, a composer three years younger than him. The first performance took place in the Aeolian Hall, London, later that year.

In the 1920s, Vaughan Williams made an arrangement of On Wenlock Edge for full orchestra that was first performed on 24 January 1924 by John Booth, with the composer conducting. Vaughan Williams preferred this version to his original.

The second of these songs, ‘From far, from eve and morning,’ is No 32 in Housman’s original sequence. The late Trevor Hold of Leicester University (Parry to Finzi: Twenty English Song-composers, 2002) describes this song as one of Vaughan Williams’s “finest achievements.”

Here, after the elaborate accompaniment of the opening song, ‘On Wenlock Edge,’ Vaughan Williams turns to what he describes as “utmost simplicity: wide-spreading piano chords underpin a vocal line that never strays far from its home note (B natural) …”

2, From far, from eve and morning

From far, from eve and morning
And yon twelve-winded sky,
The stuff of life to knit me
Blew hither: here am I.

Now – for a breath I tarry
Nor yet disperse apart –
Take my hand quick and tell me,
What you have in your heart.

Speak now, and I will answer;
How shall I help you, say;
Ere to the wind’s twelve quarters
I take my endless way.

Tomorrow: 3, ‘Is my team ploughing

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