There’s a scene in UK sitcom “Peep Show” where Mark, a socially-awkward credit manager rapidly approaching middle age, finds himself at a history professor’s private soirée, despite his never studying history and living hundreds of miles away—all in the desperate pursuit of a woman who was nice to him, once, in a shoe shop. Professor MacLeish is impressed with his new student’s lust for knowledge and invites him to write a piece for his faculty magazine: “500 words or so, kicking the shit out of Simon Schama.”

Mark’s internal monologue voices typically pragmatic thinking: “To enter the elite, I must shit on my heroes.” Going one further, MacLeish suggests the piece could turn into a regular column, where Mark could set about “slaying the middlebrow sacred cows.”

Ralph Vaughan Williams is neither my hero, nor do I really think he’s in need of slaying. But in Britain, he is certainly revered, a man who fought for a folk-informed music free from the shackles of Teutonic influence. The residual specter of British (read: English) exceptionalism that characterizes our politics, governance, and musical life runs strong in Vaughan Williams; this highly-stylized idea of him is regularly aired on the permanently-halcyon airwaves of Classic FM. It’s no surprise that he now represents a highly middlebrow attitude to music in the UK.

Winifred Knights: “The Deluge” (1920)
Winifred Knights: “The Deluge” (1920)

But his broadly accessible tonal-modal style means Vaughan Williams’ music is also a port of call for young musicians finding their feet. My “Vaughan Williams moment” came when I was 18, singing the “Songs of Travel” and trying my hand at composing. Hearing and performing pieces like the “English Folk Song Suite,” the “Tallis Fantasia,” the Tuba Concerto and the “Wasps” Overture—alongside other random (albeit more Scottish, Irish, and Gaelic) bits of folk exposure meant I was always going to have a predilection for writing folksy melodies using flattened sevenths, unexplainable modes, and lilting rhythms.

That moment has passed, and now I sit unmoved by the man. I’m neither a particular advocate of the music, nor am I a fan of the tweedy rhetoric that often accompanies it, full of words like “pastoral,” “bucolic,” “idyllic,” and “nostalgic.” The repertoire that makes it into performing canons does little to meaningfully dislodge such prejudices. For orchestras, the gushing “Lark Ascending” soars high, all the way to the box office (and to the top of the Classic FM Hall of Fame); if a symphony is played, it’s usually the Fifth, the dullest D Major you ever did hear. Singers, meanwhile, are occupied with the rum-ti-tum tones of the “Songs of Travel,” or the half-imagined countryside of A. E. Housman’s prosaic “On Wenlock Edge.” If a single composer’s music might miraculously disappear from concert programs post-lockdown, the name Vaughan Williams would probably top my list.

In the 1950s, while at Dartington Summer School, modernist composer Elizabeth Lutyens penned a withering attack on “cowpat music”—the school of composition that called to mind rolling fields and cow dung. It wasn’t a characterization aimed solely at Vaughan Williams, but it stuck to his shoe. Given my prelude, I would seem to fall exclusively on Lutyens’s side of the cowpat divide, although it’s not just a case of simply disliking the genre wholesale.

Yet Vaughan Williams was made up of more contradictions than this simple image suggests. Compiler of The English Hymnal and popularizer of some of the world’s best-loved hymns and carols, he was also an atheist, softening to “cheerful agnosticism” later in life. For all the cottagecore imagery that goes along with the name Vaughan Williams today, we forget that he was a committed Londoner.

Attempts to complicate his public image unearth histories that many in the British music establishment are less willing to explore so closely. Antonio Pappano attempts an image refresh in his liner notes for the London Symphony Orchestra’s recordings of Symphonies No. 4 and 6, out in April. These are “angry pieces,” says Pappano, trying to tease out something more abrupt. “So personal are these works that even studying them is a painful process, not only because of the complexity of the writing, but also because you quickly understand that you will eventually have to deal with something titanic.”

Graham Sutherland: “Devastation, 1941: An East End Street” (1941)
Graham Sutherland: “Devastation, 1941: An East End Street” (1941)

So the pieces are made up of complex emotions, yes. But then what? “The music unhesitatingly defines the British character: courage, perseverance, action.” A stiff upper lip, fight-them-on-the-beaches mentality ensues, and suddenly the idea of Vaughan Williams extolling the terrors of war in the Sixth flips back to that of a reactionary Englishman.

“Pastoral” is the less-loaded description that most usually settle on, but it becomes more difficult when faced with what comes next. The most challenging assumption that Vaughan Williams faces in a quest for a fuller picture is exactly that—the picture. The music of the pastoral school is certainly evocative, but what exactly does it evoke?

Herein lies the problem: Even in the most austere moments of Vaughan Williams, the mind’s eye pictures a scene from the English pastoral art tradition—a Gainsborough, a Constable, or a Turner. Maybe, by imagining artworks like Paul Nash’s “We Are Making A New World” or Graham Sutherland’s infamous portrait of Churchill alongside some of the art following the First World War, we might better understand the contested pastoral Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries were aiming for. And, by applying a bit of healthy chiaroscuro to the “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis,” one performance helps to change that mental picture entirely.

The ”Tallis Fantasia” is like a slightly cooler older brother to “The Lark Ascending,” less well-known yet still finding itself in 2020’s Classic FM Top 5. The piece was first performed in 1910 at the Gloucester Festival, a first-half premiere that sat alongside Elgar’s “Dream of Gerontius.” Despite being at the heart of today’s middlebrow, its reception by contemporaries was hit-and-miss. “A queer, mad work by an odd fellow from Chelsea,” thought Gloucester Cathedral’s organist Herbert Brewer, a figure remembered today for a portfolio of middle-of-the-road church music.

The Fantasia is hardly revolutionary, but it does exist as a kind of Trojan horse for musical development. The ensemble is divided into three groups–a string quartet, a string orchestra of single desks, and a larger string orchestra. There’s something very satisfying in that layering of slightly nuanced versions of the same sound on top of each other again and again.

William Orpen: “A Captured German Munition Dump” (1917)
William Orpen: “A Captured German Munition Dump” (1917)

The form revolves around that naturally antiphonal ensemble, which reaches outwards to give warm volleys of sound from all sides. The jutting, disjunct chord progressions afford enough tonal opposition to keep things interesting through the 16-minute piece, in a way that other Vaughan Williams tonal schemes (centered around tonic-submediant-subdominant ideas) fail to do. Then there are the solo sections that could easily revert to jolly pomposity, but are restrained and cantor-like. The final section may disappoint slightly, but the self-contained majesty and direct passion of what precedes it more than makes it up.

Insofar as it was “written with the Cathedral in mind,” the Fantasia is rooted in place in a way that feels far less nationalistic than in the endless talk of “soil” and “roots” in his writing. But what of a new image to accompany the sounds?

The BBC Symphony Orchestra’s performance takes place in Gloucester Cathedral, as before, but the atmosphere is entirely different. It’s hushed and, crucially, dark. Their sequence begins with a shot of a full moon, but this is closest the performance gets to naturalism. Conductor Andrew Davis appears, pensive and focused, against a luminous stained-glass backdrop. Individual player portraits follow, but with faces out of shot or shrouded in darkness; throughout the performance, the camera disappears behind pillars, snooping around in the shadows. It’s a remarkable bit of cinematography that tips the balance of a piece that could quite easily become dreary to one that becomes remarkable.

Can a single video redress an instinctive uneasiness to an entire oeuvre? Probably not. But it enhances an already promising piece, and further complicates a picture so often drawn one way. ¶