“I am told that when grapevines were first cultivated in California the vineyard masters used to try the experiment of importing plants from France or Italy and setting them in their own soil. The result was that the grapes acquired a peculiar individual flavor, so strong was the influence of the soil in which they were planted. I think I need hardly draw the moral of this, namely, that if the roots of your art are firmly planted in your own soil and that soil has anything individual to give you, you may still gain the whole world and not lose your own soul.”
Ralph Vaughan Williams
I am not sure why it is that certain composers have the ability to reach so deeply into our hearts, or why they feel more compatible with our intrinsic musicality, but Vaughan Williams holds that place for me. The last time I performed the Six Studies in English Folk Song, my pianist, one who almost never doles out compliments, turned to me in a rehearsal and with wide eyes remarked that this piece matched my voice closely and beautifully.
As a doctoral student, when I began to dig into the lives and backgrounds of our composers, I discovered that Vaughan Williams and I had a lot in common. An earthy yet dreamy pastoral coloring in his music reflects his love for Folk music. He was also a late bloomer, and carried a hefty dose of self-doubt about his musical abilities. I suppose it also helps that a significant portion of my ancestors come from the British Isles.
But not everyone likes Vaughan Williams. People seem to fall strongly in favor for or against his music, which is ironic, considering the fairly delicate and sweet nature of his style. My Mom, for one, can’t stand the Lark Ascending, she feels as if he wanders around too much and never gets anywhere. I suppose that is exactly what I love about it.
As I am practicing for my CD and revisiting the Six Studies, I am struck by how incredibly challenging it is to play with the warm and simple beauty that the piece demands. The pure and transparent song texture leaves no possibility to cover up intonation mistakes with wild vibrato, and the sound needs a richness that can never indulge in romantic lushness.
I think it is easy to overlook this type of work as simplistic and easy, both to compose and perform, but it is just the opposite. Maintaining the purity and innocence of folk character, yet projecting subtle uniqueness inside of that character is what makes this music so profound and powerful.
Every now and then I have one of those days when I feel like my world is crumbling around me, and nothing makes any sense. That is when my husband puts on Vaughan Williams, specifically the recording of St Martin-in-the-Fields playing Dives and Lazurus. As a teenager, when I had boy trouble, I would call my friends, but I also used to lie on my bed and weep to the strains of The Lark Ascending.
It is such an honor to have the opportunity to perform and record this work. It is comforting to know that no matter how lonely and frightening my journey may be, there will always be the gentle voice of Vaughan Williams to call me back home.