Against Representation: Ralph Vaughan Williams and the Erotics of Art

By Fromm, Harold | The Hudson Review, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

Against Representation: Ralph Vaughan Williams and the Erotics of Art


Fromm, Harold, The Hudson Review


What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to seemore, to hearmore, tofeelmore. ... In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.

-Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation

ALTHOUGH THE INDEX TO ALEX ROSS'S THE REST IS NOISE includes a few references to Ralph Vaughan Williams, there is in fact no account of this composer in Ross's review of twentieth-century Western music, and in the text of the book itself Vaughan Williams is only a name mentioned in passing. On the other hand, Ross's treatment of Aaron Copland is extensive. Moreover, there is a good deal of cheerleading by Ross for Webern, Berg, and Schönberg, enough to induce me to buy a copy of James Levine's Berlin Philharmonic collection of their orchestral pieces, a CD that Ross recommends but that I seem never to have a desire to listen to. This is a set of circumstances that says more than meets the eye - and desire is at the heart of it: not only the aesthetic desire of music listeners that drives their response but the motivational desire of Vaughan Williams that expressed his compositions.

Despite all of his pages touting Copland, Ross fails to face the fact that the living repertoire of Copland's works is minuscule. How many times can one listen to Appalachian Spring, for all its excellences? When the infrequency of their performance is taken into account, Copland's early experimental and atonal compositions (however much their weight) might just as well not exist, and his other ballet music, however much fun, is rarely performed and, at best, can only be regarded as lightweight.

Vaughan Williams is another story altogether. And a good deal of that story is enriched by Oxford's publication of Letters of Ralph Vaughan Williams 1895-1958, an elegant volume, well edited, annotated, and introduced by Hugh Cobbe.1 With the help of Ursula Vaughan Williams, Ralph's second wife (who died at 96 in October 2007, a month after Cobbe's book was completed), about 3,300 letters had been collected, of which 757 were selected for this volume. A foreword by VWs most assiduous expert, Michael Kennedy, tells us, "In Vaughan Williams' letters you will not find the personal confessions and the insights into creative processes that illuminate Elgar's correspondence. He refused to discuss his music with anyone except his very closest friends." As discouraging as this might at first appear, it turns out that these letters add up to a powerful portrait of a great composer and man, eminently worth reading. Moreover, the letters in fact do deal mainly with his music, but from the outside, the world of performance, of newspaper reviews, of daily life, of relations between the composer and his friends as well as both his wives, Adeline Fisher for fifty-four years and Ursula Wood for the last five. So a good deal is learned about the musical milieu of VW and his times, even while parts and wholes of some of these letters have appeared in earlier books and articles.2

After several centuries of famine in English music, Ralph ( "Rafe"3) Vaughan Williams, born in Gloucestershire in 1872 and buried (as ashes) in Westminster Abbey in 1958, was a fully appreciated feast in the U.K. during his lifetime. He vied perhaps with Elgar as the first such superstar since Henry Purcell, who died in 1695 at less than half of VWs age. Today, available CDs of VWs music exceed in number even those of Copland. Admittedly, compared to limited performance in the U.S., in the U.K. the airwaves and concert halls were saturated with VWs music during his lifetime and ever since. Here in America, in the forties, fifties, and sixties, his music was often performed by luminaries such as Mitropoulos and Bernstein, and even Leopold Stokowski could claim a first with his recording of the Sixth Symphony in the early days of LPs. Today, you are more likely to hear VW on classical music radio stations in the U.S. than in the concert hall. But the reason for this is not far to seek. …

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