DVD Review

‘O Thou Transcendent’:

The Life of Ralph Vaughan Williams


© Michael Greenhalgh, July 2010

Also published by MusicWeb International



Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)

‘O thou transcendent’

Tony Palmer’s film of the life of Vaughan Williams.

Musical excerpts performed by Nicola Benedetti (violin), Hungarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Tamas Vasary, National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain/Sian Edwards
Directed and edited by Tony Palmer.

Sound format Stereo.
Picture format NTSC 16:9.
Region code 0 (worldwide).

Tony Palmer Films TPDVD106 • 2.28' •

2008 sees the 50th anniversary of the death of Ralph Vaughan Williams. UK TV Channel 5 lost no time in commemorating it with this film by Tony Palmer, transmitted at 9 am on New Year’s Day. Its DVD release can be enjoyed at any hour and viewed in portions as you wish. Interestingly its ‘chapters’ are usually identified by specific works discussed and featured, though there’s no direct mention of RVW’s music in the title. This is because the life is largely considered in relation to the music.

‘O thou transcendent’ is an excellent banner title, though if you don’t know the quote you’ll have to wait until 46:01 into the film (tr. 10, continuous timing) for its context. It’s from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, the collection of poems from which RVW made a selection for his Sea Symphony. The particular focus here is the soul’s journey through life into the unknown, an exploration of much of RVW’s music, as the quote from him in this film states, “even if you didn’t believe in God, there was something beyond, something mysterious”, looking past the immediate to the expanse.

This is Palmer’s fourth film on 20th century English composers. As with his films on Britten (1979), Walton (1980) and Arnold (2003), there are two distinct characteristics. Firstly a generous presentation of works in performance, secondly a focus on the cost to the composer of creating those works. We hear about RVW’s doubts about his music, meetings with other composers and critics, his own revisions. Michael Kennedy says RVW never believed a work was finished. This is the negative aspect of the positive one that RVW always retained a vision and sought new ways of articulating it, for instance using vibraphone in Symphony 8 and, not mentioned in the film, flugelhorn in Symphony 9. Adrian Boult regrets the large cut made in the finale of Symphony 2. Palmer missed the opportunity of interviewing Richard Hickox, who made the only recording of its original version and prefers this. It’s certainly more experimental, original and bleak.

Palmer also enjoys a little cherchez la femme. Symphony 4’s violence, we’re told, isn’t that of war but RVW’s rage against his invalid first wife Adeline. Symphony 5’s serenity is the outcome of his affair with Ursula, later to become his second wife. Doubtless these are significant elements but not the whole story. In the film Michael Kennedy says a friend told RVW his Symphony 4 was a self-portrait, a more astute observation. Kennedy also refers to the links between Symphony 5 and The Pilgrim’s Progress and the latter work’s centrality to RVW’s creativity throughout his life.

Palmer has a particular mission regarding RVW which he makes explicit in the leaflet accompanying the DVD: “to explode for ever the image of a cuddly old Uncle, endlessly recycling English folk songs”. To do this there’s an emphasis, in the commentaries at least, on the dark side of his music. Fortunately the music examples themselves and Palmer’s visual skill as a film-maker offer a more rounded experience. This starts with The lark ascending (tr. 1 1:16), flowing, warm and cosy, yes, but I was struck also by its sheer beauty. Nicola Benedetti performing it helps. Even in an extract of just 2:16 there’s also a musing, questioning quality to it as well as a sense of spaciousness and serenity. We see no lark but the camera ascends over the landscape and we’re literally transported. So here’s ‘O thou transcendent’ visually, the free-floating spirit reaching beyond everyday capability.

The stark contrast of Symphony 4 certainly emphasises RVW’s bleaker side. Stephen Johnson alludes to the appearance of the Dies irae in the finale, notably in the trombones at tr. 2 6:19 in a four note motif that appears in all movements. Unlike Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique it’s neither a direct nor full quotation, but you could say it’s a cousin and the notion this creates of the close of Symphony 4 being a kind of 20th century witches Sabbath is attractive. The unusual layout of the Hungarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, phalanxes of players sheenily front-lit facing each other as in battle, adds to this impression. The performance, directed by a grim-visaged Tamas Vasary full of intensity, with the occasional rough edge, if anything, boosts the effect. They also feature in symphonies 7 and 9. Here I should point out in a section on RVW’s film music that there’s footage from Scott of the Antarctic and then the caption Symphony No. 7 comes up (tr. 20 100:44) without any explanation that the symphony is a separate work, some of whose themes were taken from music written for the film.

Extracts from symphonies 2, 5, 6, 8, the Tallis fantasia, Norfolk rhapsody, Job and Dives and Lazarus are played by the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain/Sian Edwards; very fittingly given that RVW helped in setting it up. Here’s the same unusual lighting and layout, but the effect is different. Precision of ensemble and articulation is as fine as any professional orchestra’s yet there’s an overall smoothness that takes some of the edge from the music. The more cantabile aspects of RVW, the big tunes like that at the end of the first movement of Symphony 6 or the Pavane of the Sons of the Morning in Job come off best. Satan’s dance, in the same work, is a bit lacking in venom. The ‘chapter’ on Job (tr. 18) is instructive in that the visuals of the ballet look more dated, with less sinewy agony and ecstasy than the music which seems closer to the inspiration of Blake’s illustrations also shown. And here’s RVW succeeding at both grim and serene music in a work where both for once are on display in this film.

Symphony 5 is featured in a benign performance of the opening of the slow movement by Adrian Boult (tr. 23 116:28) with care and shaping evident. But Michael Kennedy’s commentary, “tinged with a great sadness, but that again makes you begin to wonder why” (116:46) is needlessly enigmatic, again to emphasise RVW’s dark side. Kennedy knows why, because he points out in his introduction to the Eulenburg miniature score that the cor anglais theme is that sung in The Pilgrim’s Progress to Bunyan’s text “He hath given me rest by his sorrow, and life by his death”. I hope whoever owns this Boult video will release the symphony complete on DVD to join his Symphony 8 already available (EMI DVB 38845690). This is the only RVW on DVD before Palmer apart from the anthem Let all the world performed by King’s College Cambridge Choir/Stephen Cleobury (Opus Arte OA 0835 D).

In discussing the Tallis Fantasia I feel the determination to show a severe RVW goes over the top. Stephen Johnson states “Tallis hymn begins ‘When rising from the bed of death’” (tr. 11 50:39). The hymn Tallis set was Why fumeth in fight?, a metrical version of Psalm 2 which is about conflict and dissent but not directly death. The words Johnson quotes are those of Addison’s poem and RVW chose Tallis’s tune to set to these for the English hymnal. In this film its first two verses are sung by Gloucester Cathedral Choir/Andrew Nethsingha (47:56). But death isn’t the focus of this poem, just the starting point for the exploration of contrition and realization of redemption in the sixth verse, another form of ‘O thou transcendent’. Johnson becomes more fanciful still in suggesting the Tallis Fantasia, composed in 1910, is a lament for a world changed by World War I. The RVW work which artistically provides that and conveys both change and regeneration is A Pastoral Symphony, which isn’t mentioned at all in this film, perhaps because this 1921 work is felt to be an early, optimistic response.

There’s a good deal of focus in the film on the sort of man RVW was and his continual activity in the development of music and humanitarian projects. There’s a host of contemporary witnesses with recent and archival footage skilfully blended. This is valuable and includes some unexpected insights. For instance, Brian Kay’s enthusiasm in rehearsing Messiah (tr. 14) gives you a real feel for RVW’s active involvement for 48 years in music-making at the Leith Hill Music Festival. Jill Balcon says “we none of us know what goes on within because the creative process is beyond most of us” (tr. 20 102:49), another aspect of transcendency, but adds that we all have an inner life. I’d say the main clues lie in the music’s variety of manner and mood.

“It does not make comfortable viewing” states Palmer’s note. This is sometimes more a matter of image and statement than music. A Sea Symphony is illustrated (tr. 10) partly by storms though it doesn’t contain any storm like Britten’s in Peter Grimes. Symphony 9 is accompanied by harrowing footage of famine in Africa. I take it Palmer is saying this is a contemporary visual equivalent to the force of RVW’s music, looking into the depths of human existence and questioning how to respond. But there’s still something unseemly about this blending of an artistic construct, emotion recollected in tranquillity, and the raw emotion of reality. In similar sensational style Stephen Johnson talks about RVW as an ambulance man in World War 1 “picking up an eye, a bit of a leg, half a head” though RVW himself, with more respect and dignity, never spoke about these experiences. However, it’s fair to infer that he exorcised them in his music. Johnson appropriately refers to the repeated two chords in the epilogue of Symphony 6 “like an Amen that doesn’t resolve”. As presented here this is a purely nihilistic RVW ending, yet RVW’s own nearest match in words of “our little life is rounded by a sleep” seems less desolate.

In commentary the film bows out with the bleak eloquence of the opening movement of Symphony 9 graphically portrayed by Tamas Vasary. This is a selective picture. Turn to this symphony’s second movement and you’ll find an exploratory vision as well as some conflict, then tenderness and compassion in its central melody, an all-embracing strength of climax and serene close. The third movement scherzo has banter. Where’s RVW’s humour in this film? The finale is at least ambivalent and seeks to be affirmative. This range is what makes RVW’s music continue to attract. But I’m illustrating the greatest strength of Palmer’s film: its provocation. It forces you to consider and seek to articulate your own response to RVW. This is what makes it stimulating, yes irritating too, but ultimately rewarding and memorable.