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In 1908, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) left his native England to study in Paris with Maurice Ravel, who, at that point, had several works to his name and a reputation as one of the most important forces in French music, second perhaps only to Debussy. The three months that Vaughan Williams spent under Ravel’s tutelage had an impact on his compositions that cannot be understated. Vaughan Williams also had a life-long interest in the music of Tudor England, and it was these two strains, what he called the “French polish” that he had acquired from Ravel and his abiding Englishness, that On Wenlock Edge combines.

Vaughan Williams completed On Wenlock Edge in its original version for tenor, string quartet, and piano in 1909, later reworking the cycle for tenor and orchestra between 1918 and 1924. He used poetry from A.E. Housman’s quintessentially English collection A Shropshire Lad for the cycle (see below). There is something unmistakably English, too, about Vaughan Williams’ music. It is simultaneously sophisticated and down-to-earth, ingenious in its instrumental effects and straightforward in setting the texts.

This juxtaposition is immediately apparent in the first song, with its shimmering opening, which owes something to Ravel and the French musical impressionists, conjuring up the wind with which the text is occupied. Vaughan Williams’ approach to the text works on two levels – that of word-painting, and that of bringing out the meanings inherent in phrases or in an entire text. Again, in the first song, he paints words like “high” and “gale,” and depicts the sense of foreboding in phrases like “the wood’s in trouble” and “His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves” in the accompaniment.

This approach runs through the cycle. Witness the third song, with its mournful cast, interrupted by a moment of comfort, a snatch of a lullaby, as the narrator urges “Be still, my lad, and sleep.” The fifth song, too, is full of onomatopoeic effects, with an accompaniment reminiscent of pealing church bells. The cycle as a whole shows Vaughan Williams at his most characteristic – the composer who was every bit as accomplished and sophisticated as his continental counterparts without forsaking England’s heritage of folk music, the man who was related to the Darwins and the Wedgwoods and dressed like a farmer. On Wenlock Edge is an early utterance from a composer who was one of the most stirring of the 20th century, with an international appeal rooted firmly in his Englishness.

John Mangum is a Ph.D. candidate in history at UCLA and has annotated programs for the Hollywood Bowl, the Los Angeles Opera, and the Hong Kong Arts Festival.

ON WENLOCK EDGE

Poetry by A.E. Housman from A Shropshire Lad

On Wenlock Edge

On Wenlock Edge the world’s in trouble;

    His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves;

The gale, it piles the saplings double,

  And thick on Severn snow the leaves.

’Twould blow like this through hot and hanger

  When Uricon the city stood:

’Tis the old wind in the old anger,

  But then it threshed another wood.

Then, ’twas before my time, the Roman

  At yonder heaving hill would stare:

The blood that warms an English yeoman,

  The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.

There, like the wind through woods in riot,

  Through him the gale of life blew high;

The tree of man was never quiet:

  Then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I.

The gale, it piles the saplings double,

  It blows so hard, ’twill soon be gone:

To-day the Roman and his trouble

  Are ashes under Uricon.

From far, from eve and morning

From far, from eve and morning

  And yon twelve-winded sky,

The stuff of life to knit me

  Blew hither: here am I.

Now – for a breath I tarry

  Nor yet disperse apart –

Take my hand quick and tell me,

  What you have in your heart.

Speak now, and I will answer;

  How shall I help you, say;

Ere to the wind’s twelve quarters

  I take my endless way.

Is my team ploughing

‘Is my team ploughing,

  That I was used to drive

And hear the harness jingle

  When I was man alive?’

Ay, the horses trample,

   The harness jingles now;

No change though you lie under

   The land you used to plough.

‘Is my girl happy,

   That I thought hard to leave,

And has she tired of weeping

   As she lies down at eve?’

Ay, she lies down lightly,

   She lies down not to weep:

Your girl is well contented.

   Be still my lad, and sleep.

‘Is my friend hearty,

   Now I am thin and pine,

And has he found to sleep in

   A better bed than mine?’

Yes, lad, I lie easy,

   I lie as lads would choose;

I cheer a dead man’s sweetheart,

   Never ask me whose.

Oh, when I was in love with you

Oh, when I was in love with you,

   Then I was clean and brave,

And miles around the wonder grew

   How well I did behave.

And now the fancy passes by,

   And nothing will remain,

And miles around they’ll say that I

   Am quite myself again.

Bredon Hill

In summertime on Bredon

   The bells they sound so clear;

Round both the shire they ring them

   In steeples far and near,

   A happy noise to hear.

Here of a Sunday morning

   My love and I would lie,

And see the coloured counties,

   And hear the larks so high

   About us in the sky.

The bells would ring to call her

   In valleys miles away:

‘Come all to church, good people;

   Good people, come and pray.’

   But here my love would stay.

And I would turn and answer

   Among the springing thyme,

‘Oh, peal upon our wedding,

   And we will hear the chime,

   And come to church in time.’

But when the snows at Christmas

   On Bredon top were strown,

My love rose up so early

   And stole out unbeknown

   And went to church alone.

They tolled the one bell only,

   Groom there was none to see,

The mourners followed after,

   And so to church went she,

   And would not wait for me.

The bells they sound on Bredon,

   And still the steeples hum.

‘Come all to church, good people.’ –

   Oh, noisy bells, be dumb;

   I hear you, I will come.

Clun

In valleys of springs and rivers,

   By Ony and Teme and Clun,

The country for easy livers

   The quietest under the sun,

We still had sorrows to lighten,

   One could not always be glad,

And lads knew trouble at Knighton

   When I was a Knighton lad.

By bridges that Thames runs under,

   In London, the town built ill,

’Tis sure small matter for wonder

   If sorrow is with one still.

And if as a lad grows older

   The troubles he bears are more,

He carries his griefs on a shoulder

   That handselled them long before.

Where shall one halt to deliver

   This luggage I’d lief set down?

Not Thames, not Teme is the river,

   Nor London nor Knighton the town:

’Tis a long way further than Knighton,

   A quieter place than Clun

Where doomsday may thunder and lighten

   And little ’twill matter to one.