Overture from Aristophanic Suite: “The Wasps”

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            Ralph Vaughan Williams (incidentally, pronounced “Rayf, not Ralf”) is perhaps Britain’s most important and influential composer of the first half of the twentieth century.  Prolific in most musical genres, he was an active composer from his student days right up until his death in 1958, at the age of eighty-six.  He composed dozens of works that are part of the core repertory of British music of the last century, including the important series of nine symphonies, a variety of other orchestral works, and a wealth of vocal music.

            He lived a long life—long enough to have written in a number of rather different styles, all of them authentic and reflective of his changing interests and the times.  He was born into an educated, upper middle class family—related to both the famous Wedgwoods and the Darwins--attended Cambridge University, and studied with eminent musicians and scholars, including a stint with Maurice Ravel.  Among his early close friends and fellow students were such luminaries as Bertram Russell, Leopold Stokowski, and, of course, Gustav Holst.  Not a precocious musician, he began modestly, studied diligently, and slowly achieved public recognition as a composer, not publishing until his early thirties.  In addition to his copious activities as a composer, he spent his entire life engaged in championing the support of English music, whether as teacher, writer, festival organizer, or conductor—including the most modest levels of amateur music making.

            In addition to his early activities as a rising composer, he and Holst were among the leaders in the efflorescence of serious study and collection of English folksong that arose in the late nineteenth century.  He and Holst frequently spent time in the countryside tracking the rapidly vanishing body of song, writing them down, and preserving them.  He later served as president of the English Folk Dance and Song Society.  And, inevitably, his appreciation of this great literature became a major influence on one facet of his musical style—evidenced by every American band student’s encounter with his English Folksong Suite.  An important interest and activity of his early on was his editorship of the English Hymnal (1906), his interest in the great English composer, Henry Purcell, and of all of the music, in general, of the Renaissance in England.

            After WW II, his musical stock languished to a large degree, owing to the predominance of radical musical modernism, and it became fashionable to denigrate Vaughan Williams and his British peers as hopelessly passé.  Vaughan Williams, Butterworth, Holst, Delius, and others were snidely dismissed as “pastoralists,”—composers of lush, beguiling, tuneful, nationalistic music that reeked of nature.  Benjamin Britten scornfully deemed them the “cowpat” school.  Time has erased that woeful assessment.

            Early in his career, in 1909, not long before the successes that first brought him widespread accolades, he was commissioned to provide incidental music for the Cambridge Greek Play, an old tradition at the University of Cambridge wherein every three years one of the great Greek plays is given entirely in the ancient Greek language.  The play chosen in 1909 was Aristophanes’ “The Wasps,” considered one the greatest comedies in theatre.  The play is a rousing satire of the Athenian judiciary, with the behavior of elderly jurors generating a comparison with the eponymous insects.  Having said that, Vaughan Williams’ music for the play has absolutely nothing to do with wasps or ancient Greece.   Rather, it is typical of the composer’s folksong-inflected, cheerful, and witty British style.  The music is a suite comprised of an overture, two entr’actes, an eccentric little middle movement called “March Past of the Kitchen Utensils,” and a “Ballet and Final Tableau.”  They are all charming, tuneful, and perfect accompaniment to an evening of comedy in ancient Greek for an educated audience.  It must be admitted, though, that the opening of the “Overture” is a perfect imitation of swarming wasps, but that little bit of musical onomatopoeia just sets the stage, so to speak, and doesn’t return as a signature musical element.  After the opening swarm of wasps, the overture lays out a bustling succession of tunes in the best traditional Vaughan Williams style.   His forays with Holst collecting English folksongs bear fruit here, as well as his study with Ravel.  But, there’s nothing French about it, simply an eloquent and mellifluous testimony to the composer’s innate musical gifts.  The attentive listener will spot any number of Vaughan Williams’ signature stylistic features:  pentatonic and modal melodies, broad lyrical tunes combined polyphonically with “dancing” faster tunes—even snatches of later, well-known compositions of his.  These, and the rousing ending all are harbingers of his musical maturity, and lasting significance.

--Wm. E. Runyan

©2019 William E. Runyan