Thursday, August 02, 2007

Prom 17: Delius, Tippett and Vaughan Williams

Just finished listening to the second half of this concert again on the R3 site.

Vaughan Williams's response to WWII was clearly very different to certain contemporaries like Shostakovich. Out went dissonance and turmoil and in came rousing, affirmative lyricism.

This singularly serene symphony − his fifth − was first performed at the Royal Albert Hall at a Prom on June 24, 1943. Perhaps my father was up in the gallery watching. He wouldn't remember now, but he's a fan of the composer.

There was however one significantly dissonant note during the performance last Thursday evening: someone had seen fit to bring their bronchitic child along and the poor little thing was the object of some gorgon stares from the rows behind.

English music from the twentieth century appeals to me on a level way down below the intellectual. Having spent all my life living in a central London flat before I went up to Cambridge, I took with me a rather canned sense of the flow of my country's seasons. The change I then experienced could be compared to the discovery of CDs by someone only accustomed to listening to classical music on scratchy old mono 78s.

In my final year I had a room at the far end of my college overlooking a field which contained rare-breeds of sheep. This belated HD exposure to pastoral phase changes occurred at a time when I came into close contact with the most nocturnal of the college cliques − the music students. And they too were all huge fans of these twentieth century Brits and their immediate artistic descendents.

So there is a complex set of associations at work here when I listen to one of their works − cycling through butterflies in a field of rape, and drink-fuelled debate back in the long-passed period of life when one stayed up all night for the sheer pleasure of it.

A Song of Summer by Delius was also composed using elements of an earlier discarded work. (A Poem of Love and Life) It was to be the composer's final orchestral score and as he was already blind and paralysed from tertiary syphilis, it was partially dictated to his collaborator Eric Fenby. The BBC Symphony Orchestra's Conductor Laureate Andrew Davis was on hand last week to make sure that the strings were up to delivering the trademark Delius tremulousness.

Michael Tippett's radiant Triple Concerto is the kind of piece you can play over and over with little fear of quickly running out of new things to listen out for. Its movements − linked by interludes of what the composer liked to call non-music − track the life cycle: be it that of our whole span or a single rapturous switch from day to night and back again.

The final movement betrays the influence of Balinese gamelan, but it is the mid-section that I keep returning to, as it plucks my consciousness right back to any number of dreamy, balmy mid-summer twilights. (Though to one or two in particular, again during that Cambridge period when my own life's second movement had just got going.)

The field with the sheep is now a car park.

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