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WHISPERS OF HEAVENLY DEATH

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RODERIC DUNNETT talks to MARTIN LEE-BROWNE
about a newly discovered
Vaughan Williams setting of Walt Whitman

 

It was at the UK's Three Choirs Festival, where music-loving cognoscenti traditionally gathered to judge the latest works of Parry, Stanford, Boughton and Finzi, that Elgar won his spurs in the late l9th century. Saint-Saëns visited; so did Kodály. Bliss raised eyebrows with his Colour Symphony. Howells was persuaded -- at last -- to finish his moving elegy Hymnus Paradisi. It was at the Gloucester Three Choirs that Vaughan Williams made his name overnight with the première of his Tallis Fantasia in l9l0.

Ralph Vaughan Williams and Walt Whitman

Arguably no poet meant more to Vaughan Williams than Walt Whitman. For three generations -- Delius with Sea Drift and the Requiem, Holst with his Whitman Overture, The South African William Henry Bell (who composed a Whitman Symphony), RVW with Toward the Unknown Region (l907) and the Sea Symphony (l903-9, first heard at Leeds in 1910), or the young Ivor Gurney hammering out his Gloucestershire slant on poetic modernism -- Whitman's poetry was not just a passion but a virtual religion : a pantheistic humanism embracing the immensity of a part-benevolent universe encompassing sea, sky and some unfulfilled, numinous longing in one grand sweep.

Now a musty storeroom in a Berkshire cottage has yielded a miracle : an unknown, fully orchestrated Vaughan Williams setting of Whitman, which received probably its first public performance on this year's opening night (see Philip Lancaster's review, Music & Vision, 20-25 September 2001).

'Whispers of heavenly death', the newly discovered song, is clearly dated 11 January l908, some months after the premières of Vaughan Williams's Toward the Unknown Region (also Whitman) and his R L Stevenson cycle Songs of Travel.

Martin Lee-Browne

'It surfaced by sheer luck,' explains Martin Lee-Browne, Chairman of this year's highly successful Gloucester Three Choirs Festival, relation and descendant of the composers Henry Balfour Gardiner and Frederic Austin and author of a recent biography of Austin. 'My sister and I were turning out the attic of our uncle, Richard Austin (a postwar conductor, incidentally, of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra). Austin's widow, the Paris-trained cello soloist Leily Howell, died last year, and their attic in Ashampstead was littered with trunkfuls of music composed by my grandfather, Frederic Austin (1872-l952), who was one of the best-known baritones of his day and a friend of many musical illuminati, Vaughan Williams among them.'

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Copyright © 25 October 2001 Roderic Dunnett, Coventry, UK

 

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PHILIP LANCASTER'S THREE CHOIRS REVIEW

THE VAUGHAN WILLIAMS SOCIETY WEBSITE

HEAR VAUGHAN WILLIAMS SPEAK

 

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