Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Ralph Vaughan Williams: Two Organ Preludes, founded on Welsh folksongs

St David of Wales
Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote few works for the organ - or piano for that matter. The longest and most impressive is the Prelude and Fugue in C minor (1921). For most listeners and organists it is his Prelude on ‘Rhosymedre’ which is most popular and best known: it was the second of his ‘Three Preludes founded on Welsh Hymns’ (1920). This is one of the loveliest pieces of English organ music in the repertoire.

The most important recent survey of RVW s original organ music is Hugh Benham’s major essay in the RVW Society Journal (Issue 55 October 2012).  I acknowledge his work in my consideration of the Two Organ Preludes founded on Welsh Folksongs.

In 1956 Vaughan Williams turned to Welsh song once again with his ‘Two Organ Preludes founded on Welsh Folk Songs’. They carry no dedication and there is no suggestion as to their purpose, if there was one. The tunes used are secular rather than liturgical, although as Benham points, out they can be used as voluntaries in church and cathedral.
The two pieces are contrasted. There is a simplicity about the ‘Romanza ‘The White Rock’’ that is both pastoral and reflective.  The tune is based on ‘David of the White Rock’ (Dafydd y Garreg Wen) and may have been composed by the 18th century harpist David Owen. After a short introduction, the tune is first heard ‘cantabile’ played with the right hand. It is then repeated in the tenor register before the work comes to a gentle conclusion.

The Toccata ‘St David’s Day’ is quite a restrained little example of the genre. The melody is based on the eponymous tune printed in The Celtic Song Book, ed. A.P. Graves (London, Ernest Benn, 1928) and is an eighteenth century tune. RVW has utilised the last part of the original melody which is repeated in various transpositions and finally presented in an augmented version. The piece concludes with a unison statement of this theme. Benham believes that this toccata was ‘composed quickly’ and not ‘worked at intensely’. Generally, he considers that these Two Preludes ‘are of less musical interest than the earlier set [‘Three Preludes founded on Welsh Hymns’].

Peter Hardwick in his conspectus of British Organ Music of the Twentieth Century (Oxford, Scarecrow Press, 2003) considers that these two preludes exhibit RVWs ‘wholesome, good-natured, pastoral manner.’  The Romanza ‘returns to the tonal, slightly tart, flowing, transparent contrapuntal style of the earlier sunny ‘Rhosymedre’ setting.’ On the other hand, both Preludes are bedevilled with ‘the danger of the myriad short sections accompanied by modulations and [an] inconclusive ending.’ The folk songs are treated with the ‘traditional means of fragmentation, sequences, and canonic passages [and] bold linear counterpoints and rhythmic asymmetries…’

The two organ preludes were published by OUP in that year. In 1964 they were also included in The Vaughan Williams Organ Album. (OUP).
The reviewer of the published sheet music (IK) in Music & Letters (July 1957) begins his comments by suggesting that ‘organists have been wondering when Vaughan Williams's pen would remember them. He perhaps does not love their trade very much, and one fears that these two pieces will be found rather gaunt. For all its asperity, the old Prelude and Fugue in C minor gave us congenial fistfuls of sound.’

In 1996 the ‘Two Preludes’ were recorded by Christopher Nickol on the organ of the Caird Hall in Dundee. They were released by Priory (PRCD 537) on an album of the ‘complete’ organ works by RVW and Frank Bridge.
MR (Marc Rochester)  reviewing Nickol’s recording in The Gramophone (December 1996) writes that RVW ‘….there is a lot of energy in the Toccata (‘St David’s Day’)…but after chasing its tail round and round a few times he abandons the task long before the music reaches the two minute mark.’ Mark D. Henegar, in the RVW Society Journal (No.7 October 1996) reviewing the same recording recognises that these Two Preludes are not as well-known as the ‘Three Preludes founded on Welsh Hymns’, ‘but are no less beautiful, especially the Romanza.’ He considers that ‘the Toccata is a more accessible piece’ than ‘Hyfrodol’ concluding the earlier work. It is ‘a good example of RVWs jubilatory style’. 

From a personal point of views, although I enjoy these two pieces, they are not RVW at his very best and will never usurp the much more accomplished ‘Three Preludes founded on Welsh Hymns.’ Yet, on St. David’s Day 2016 they deserve to be recalled and perhaps given the occasional outing in the organ loft. It is surprising that there appears to only one recording currently available of both preludes. 

1 comment:

Gregory said...

Although not what I usually think of when I think about RVW, I welcome great organ works by great composers! Thanks for sharing this.