Vaughan Williams and His Fantasia for Piano and Orchestra (1904)

By Bebbington, Mark | Musical Opinion, November/December 2011 | Go to article overview

Vaughan Williams and His Fantasia for Piano and Orchestra (1904)


Bebbington, Mark, Musical Opinion


Recent times have been good to early Vaughan Williams. No sooner had his Cambridge Mass - a discovery from 1 899 - been premiered at Fairfield Hall, Croydon, ast March, than it was the turn of The Garden of Proserpine, for soprano, chorus and orchestra dating from 1901 and a centrepiece premiere at this year's English Music Festival held in June.

Now it's the turn of VWs Fantasia for piano and orchestra, a work according to the inscription at the end of the score 'Begun October 1896, Finished February 9th 1902, Revised January 27th 1904, Further revised October 1904' - and yet a work which was never performed.

Although we seem to live in an epoch of musical discoveries and quasi-reincarnations, in addition to bona fide historical premieres such as the above, these works do raise a question as to whether the unearthing of such trouvailles, however well intentioned, really represents the wishes of the composer and, most importantly, whether the musical end justifies the means.

Composers, rather like many authors and painters, can often be notorious for both a systematic and a so an a most whimsical dismissa of their early works. There is, therefore, a good case for ensuring that more of these works are afforded an opportunity for public assessment. The creative artist is not always his or her best judge and in the case of the Fantasia, we can turn to Ursula, the composer's devoted second wife, for an inkling behind the renaissance of her husband's early works; for it was she who ater revoked all previous embargoes on many of those youthfu works which he had withdrawn or laid aside at about the time of his return from the First World War in 1919. In the instance of the Fantasia, it is important to note that it is Ursula's hand adorning the title page with the word WITHDRAWN in bold, red capital letters ... not VWs. Should we assume that her ater change of heart was based on a reappraisa of this - and other - early works, or was it perhaps a wish to et the musical world assess the merits of these missing pieces of the RVW musical jigsaw?

The most pressing question of all is why the composer himself decided against publication; Michael Kennedy, in his notes for the SOMM recording of the Fantasia is unable to shed ight on this, but he does note..." The Fantasia indicates a natural feeling for the solo instrument and a confidence astonishing in a composer writing for the orchestra for the first time. Yet confidence in his own originality is perhaps what he lacked..."

Clearly the work mattered to the composer; he did, after all, revisit it three times following that initial October 1896 competion, yet maybe this in itself is an indication of a ingering doubt. And this reticence, such as it was, is entirely understandable, for the work stands very much in the mould of a Lisztian Tone Poem (Tosso or Ce qu'on entend sur la montagne spring to mind as prototypes), but with strong influences from Cesar Franck's D minor Symphony (1886-88) and especially his slightly earlier Variations Symphoniques for Piano and Orchestra (1885). Also casting shadows on the Fantasia are both Schumann and Brahms, although in the case of the atte r it is the spirit of his mature works that give an autumnal glow to the youthfu Fantasia. Very much the case, then, of a young composer throwing down the gauntlet to acknowledged masters of the symphonic tradition.

The Fantasia does date, though, from a transitional period in the young composer's life and in acknowledging the influence of the aforementioned composers it is important to realise that the landmark TO///S Fantasia was to be written just six years later (1910), whilst the turbulence of the Seo Symphony ( 1 903- 1 909) was well underway by the time revisions of the Fantasia were complete. There is something of the genesis of both these works in the Fantasia, especially of the To///s Fantasia, where the richness of antiphonal string writing is anticipated in the Fantasia's lower strings (especially within the divisi violas of the first full orchestral tutti), and even within the chorale-like writing of the following passage for solo piano, with its widely spanning left hand stretches (Example 1).

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