Monday, 11 April 2011

Ralph Vaughan Williams: Festival Te Deum in F Major (1937)

The Coronation Year was a quiet one for Ralph Vaughan Williams, at least as far a musical composition was concerned. There are only three pieces noted in the catalogue for 1937: - the Flourish for a Coronation, an English language adaptation of Anton Dvorak’s Te Deum of 1892 and the present Festival Te Deum. However in January of that year, Boult had given the first London performance of Five Tudor Portraits and the opera Riders to the Sea was staged at the Royal College of Music in November.

The first performance of the Festival Te Deum was at the ‘Coronation of Their Majesties King George VI and Queen Elizabeth’ at Westminster Abbey on 12 May 1937. The specially assembled choir and orchestra were conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. The work was sung whilst the newly-crowned King descended from his throne ‘carrying his Sceptre and Rod in his hands’ and accompanied by the Queen ‘repaired to St Edward’s Chapel to be disrobed of his Royal Robe of State and arrayed in his Robe of purple velvet’. With the exception of the National Anthem it was the final piece of music sung at the ceremony.

The Festival Te Deum is ostensibly ‘founded on traditional themes’ most of which do not seem to have been positivly identified. However Frank Howe has indicated that one tune used at ‘The glorious company of the Apostles praise thee...’ is based on a Dorian tune ‘It’s a rich young farmer’ and Dives and Lazarus is used at ‘When thou tookest upon thee...’ Sir William McKie in an anecdote has suggested that there may also be an allusion to ‘Tarry Trousers’ or ‘Lovely Joan.’The work is written in three-part form with a short introduction and a coda. Vaughan Williams makes a careful balance between chant-like music and that which is declamatory. The central section is more melodic and chant-like compared to the declamatory and fanfare-like music used in the first and last sections. He has made use of modal melodies throughout this work. The singing from the choir is largely often in unison. The sense of the words is reflected by the use of reduced choral resources for the more reflective parts of the setting with full-choir featuring in the triumphant moments.

The Festival Te Deum has not had a particularly good press. On a positive note, the reviewer in The Times noted that this was ‘spontaneous and jubilant music’ and considered that unlike many festival settings of the Te Deum ‘the jubilation is not allowed to obscure the deeper implication of the words.’ However, James Day has suggested that the composer was on ‘auto-pilot’ when he composed this work. A.E.F Dickinson is even more critical, ‘this an incredibly derivative work.’ Michael Kennedy considers that ‘the words and the music do not go well together.’

However, Kennedy does admit that this effort is a ‘thoroughly extrovert ceremonial piece, right for the right occasion.’ Perhaps listeners should use this judgement when listening to this Te Deum – it is not a ‘timeless work of art’ but an ephemeral piece that well serves its purpose and deserves to be revived on occasion.

The Festival Te Deum can be heard on Chandos Collect

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