32. Careful Writng 2


Examples discussed in this article:

Like many of his generation and native land, Ralph Vaughan Williams was strongly influenced by English folk music as well as historic English composers. One set of those influences was the English composers of the Renaissance including William Byrd, Robert White and Thomas Tallis. In the middle of the sixteenth century Tallis composed a series of psalm chants one of which Vaughan Williams used for his work entitled (unsurprisingly) Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. The string-only work is written for string quartet, standard sized string orchestra, and a small string orchestra. The Fantasia had its premiere in 1910.

Before looking into the smaller pieces of the work, an overview of the landscape is in order. Example 32.1 shows the opening measures of the score. Note the solo strings at the top, the main orchestra below them (Orchestra I) and the smaller orchestra (Orchestra II) at the bottom of the score.

Example 32.1 Ralph Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1 – 12)
Adrian Boult, London Philharmonic Orchestra, EMI

Now listen to Example 32.1 and notice the beauty of the voicing of the opening chord. Although it’s a simple G major chord, the ear is surprised by the lack of sound in the middle register. The lower part of the chord consists of the natural overtones of the low (contra) G, that is: G (prime), G (first overtone), D (second), G (third), B-natural (fourth) and D (fifth). This is played by all of the various ensembles and produces a rich and full sound, even at a pianissimo marking.

But, then Vaughan Williams skips all the notes that would be in the five lines of the treble clef and repeats the G major tetrad beginning at two line G, atop the treble staff. This produces a magical sound at the beginning of this string work. It tells the audience that something unexpected is commencing here.

Once the opening set of chords moves from the G major chord slowly to a C minor, then G-flat and finally to a sustained D played by all the violins, the composer brings in the lower strings pizzicato to introduce some of the lines and rhythms that will be used in the work. For these first bars, the lower strings alternate between pizzicato and arco, monotonic and harmonized. This bit of celestial composition is enhanced by the vacillation between strong percussive rhythm of the plucked strings and a lack thereof in the arco sections of block chords.

Now with the organizational structure and the introduction in mind, it’s useful to note the work upon which Vaughan Williams built this piece. Example 32.2 is the first part of the anthem by Tallis.

Example 32.2 Thomas Tallis: Tune for Archbishop Parker’s Psalter (1 – 10)
Peter Phillips, The Tallis Scholars, Gimell

As is typical of music from the sixteenth century, there is no key per se. Instead there are cadences and tonal areas. And, there are only guesses as to how the work was performed, especially the rhythm. Although I’ve notated it mostly in four, it’s clear at least from this performance that there is a great deal of flexibility in those four beats per measure.

The next example (32.3) is the second part of the chant. Here the rhythms are even more fluid in their structure. In addition, throughout the chant F-sharp major and F-sharp minor are two tonal centers the composer used along with each one’s relative harmonic influences.

Example 32.3 Thomas Tallis: Tune for Archbishop Parker’s Psalter (11 – 20)
Peter Phillips, The Tallis Scholars, Gimell

We’ll now examine the introduction of the theme in the Vaughan Williams work, which takes place after Example 32.1. In Example 32.4 we see the composer using all the violins moving from the D on the second half of measure 13, up to the G on the downbeat of measure 14. This dotted triplet is marked with a crescendo and divided in both the first and second violins. To emphasize the G on the downbeat of measure 14, the composer has all the violas play the lower G (of the octaves in the violins) pizzicato. This stresses the downbeat and helps the notation of the forte-piano in the first violins. Notating the second violins with an eighth note marked forte also serves the same purpose, assuring the stress immediately followed by a soft sound. Though a commonly used effect, a composer can get extra mileage by writing it into the orchestra as well as documenting it.

Example 32.4 Ralph Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (13 – 23)
Adrian Boult, London Philharmonic Orchestra, EMI

One of the most interesting things about this work is how Vaughan Williams takes the tune and repeats it in a variety of shades. He breaks down the parts and changes the color frequently to heighten the musicality and quality he brings to the work.

For those not familiar with string orchestras, this is the place where a composer can show off his or her command of string writing in a range of timbres and colors.

Beginning in measure 15 the second violins, violas and upper cellos begin to play the melody with the lower cellos and pizzicato basses playing the bass line. What is not immediately apparent is the fact that, with all of those separate lines, there are simple two: the melody and the bass. The sound is rich and full with the string parts all written in strong ranges of the instruments.

The key here to the “heavenly” sound is in the first violins. Naturally a tremolo will give a line an added boost. But here, Vaughan Williams splits the firsts in half, each playing a separate line. Given the emphasis on the G tonal center, the firsts have most of the key element to tell us what is “major” and what is “minor.”

The two first violins lines could also be thought of as the other two parts of the four-part harmony that is missing in the other two parts played by all the other strings. And it’s those other strings that is heard most clearly, but it’s these higher voices (again, like the opening, at least an octave above the rest) that fleshes out the harmonies and the voicings is such a way that the sound is both rich and full, while also transparent and ethereal. In sum, it’s a bit of genius.

In Example 32.5 we hear the continued portion of this early passage in the work. As before we have the two voices in all but the first violins. Note that the first four notes of the melody at the 6/8 measure (number 24) are the same notes that the first violins played just as this section began in measures 13-14 (Example 32.4). And, as before, the divided first violins have the “other” parts to complete the four-part harmony.

Example 32.5 Ralph Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (23 – 33)
Adrian Boult, London Philharmonic Orchestra, EMI

Vaughan Williams appears to have some fun in measures 28 and 29 using the melody from Tallis to both harmonize with itself and to echo those same melodies. Note the main melody line in the second violins, violas and upper cellos in measure 28, the one that moves from an E-flat to a B-flat. Also, note the same instruments playing the same rhythm in the next measure, but with the line moving from C to G.

It would be easy enough for a composer to simply overlay those two lines to get the same passage harmonized in thirds. Vaughan Williams does this, but in his desire to continue the celestial lines played by the first violins, he shifts the top first violins from their tremolos to a standard mode of play. This enriches the luscious harmonies and the liquid melodies as those first violins play the harmony in measure 28 and then echo it in measure 29 while the lower strings sing out the original melody.

Coincident with these shifts the lower first violins continue their tremolos through this passage, ultimately joining the rest of the ensemble in “modo ordinaire” in measure 30, just as the melody is drawing to an end. This is accompanied by a diminuendo throughout the orchestra, arriving at a pianissimo just when the upper strings (the first violins) have joined with the rest of the ensemble for a more traditional voicing of the harmonies.

As you might expect, Vaughan Williams is not done with this echo pattern. In the next example he takes a somewhat traditional approach to its use. Nevertheless, it works.

Look at the passage in Example 32.6. The first violins have been playing the melody since the last example with the harmonies in all the other strings save for the busy sixteenth note alternating patterns in the second violins. Note what the violas and cellos are doing in measures 45 and 46.

Example 32.6 Ralph Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (43 – 48)
Adrian Boult, London Philharmonic Orchestra, EMI

The same “third” pattern is played with the larger strings in both measures. The E-flat to B-flat line is in the first violins in measure 45 and the C to G line is there in measure 46. The pattern is reversed in the violas and cellos. The violas are harmonizing in thirds with the lower first violins while the cellos are playing at the octave. Yet, cello line, reasonably high on the A string is rich and resonant. It barely feels like the echo that it is of the first violins in the previous bar.

To provide an accent in these two 6/8 bars Vaughan Williams adds double stops (and one triple stop) on the second downbeat of both measures in the violas and cellos. Lastly, as the video points out, the notes in measures 47 and 48 are the exact same, but the sound the ensemble makes is dramatically different. These shifts are part of the orchestrator’s tool kit. Something as simple as these terse dynamics can make a large difference in sound and timbre.

While discussing the use of the echo by Vaughan Williams, this is reminiscent of one from the Enigma Variations by Edward Elgar. This variation (Example 32.7) also revolves around the first violins being set apart from the rest of the orchestra, but in a different manner.

Example 32.7 Edward Elgar: Variations on an Original Theme for Orchestra (“Enigma”), Variation XII (7 – 12)
Andre Previn, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Philips

Variation XII is a slow, pensive piece. Like the other variation it uses and builds on the original motifs. In measure 9 of this variation the violas and cellos have an upward D major arpeggio sandwiched between the lower and upper neighbors of the octaves. What is as haunting in its way as the Vaughan Williams is in its, is the way that Elgar has the first violins sneak in after the downbeat of measure 10 and echo the arpeggio from the previous bar. To crescendo appropriately to this mini-climax, Elgar adds some wind harmonies and a soft timpani roll. In fact, the timpani and the violins both have a crescendo and decrescendo in measure 10 moving from piano and returning to a pianissimo as the lower strings half notes resolve and the primary melody continues.

In its own way this reflection in the violins is just as celestial as the Vaughan Williams. A couple more items to note are in the writing for the contrabasses. First, there are no doubles, no other instruments (as historically had almost always been the case) are doubling the basses line. In a busier portion of the work this might be risky, bordering on a muddy sound. Here, however, with very little else sounding it makes perfect sense not to have additional volume and color.

The other item is the way that Elgar chooses not to simply write the line as half notes. Instead, he writes what he wants. That is: play the note on the downbeat and “get off” the note on the next beat. This keeps the basses from sounding vague or even sloppy when moving to the next downbeat and provides space for the upper range of instruments, in this case the violas and cellos, to sing a few octaves above with their melodic variation. And, as you would expect, once this portion of the piece ends after these three measures, he brings in the lower bassoon to double the contrabass line. Once the fuller ensemble returns, it’s the right choice.

In the next post, we’ll continue with the glorious sound and writing of the Vaughan Williams and we’ll listen to another bit of careful writing in this same variation by Elgar.


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