05 March 2015

Through Lent with Vaughan Williams (16): On
Wenlock Edge, 4, ‘Oh, when I was in love with you’

The memorial plaque commemorating Ralph Vaughan Williams in the Ante-Chapel of Trinity College Cambridge … Vaughan Williams was an undergraduate here and AE Housman was 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.

This morning [5 March 2015], I am listening to ‘Oh, when I was in love with you,’ the fourth 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 fourth of these songs, ‘Oh, when I was in love with you,’ is lighter than the others in tone and is epigrammatic in its brevity.

This song acts as a much-needed respite between Songs 3 and 5, ‘Is my team ploughing,’ and ‘Bredon Hill.’ With its melodic lines and modal harmonies, the melody sounds like an authentic English folksong.

4, Oh, when I was in love with you

Oh, when I was in love with you,
Then I was clean and brave,
And miles around the wonder grew
How well I did behave.

And now the fancy passes by,
And nothing will remain,
And miles around they’ll say that I
Am quite myself again.

Tomorrow: 5, ‘Bredon Hill

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