<< -- 3 -- Roderic Dunnett WHISPERS OF HEAVENLY DEATH
Even though Vaughan Williams was in his mid thirties when he composed
it (just as Whitman himself was when he set about writing Leaves of grass
during the early 1850s), 'Whispers of heavenly death' is constantly in flux,
never quite settling, as if to suggest the restless energies of a young
man. The song opens lento and pianissimo, couched in rootless,
muted parallel thirds (suggesting an augmented triad as they yield to mysterious,
other-worldly, Debussian descending parallel whole tones).
Next, solo violin and viola, followed by flickering flutes, usher in
chromatics (descending, then rising again in low strings and bassoons).
At 'Ripples of unseen rivers' a mysterious upward surge of violin solo and
harp sets in motion tides 'of a current flowing, forever flowing'. Paired
clarinets underline '(Or is it a plashing of tears?', before descending
major sevenths accompany a vocal line of almost Schoenbergian chromaticism
for 'The measureless waters of human tears?)'.
In the second stanza Vaughan Williams introduces a change of tone, employing,
instead of elusive chromaticism, emphatic tonal blocks (A major -- Db major
-- A major -- F major) for the reassuring words 'I see, just see skyward,
great cloud-masses, (Db, F, Bb) / Mournfully, slowly they (Bb)roll (Bb,
Gb, Bb), silently swelling (D-Db-C) and (E major) mixing.'
By '(some parturition rather, ...' Vaughan Williams plays on syncopated
added sixth chords, again pianissimo, with a glimpse of a rising
whole tone scale. Next, at 'some solemn immortal birth', a violin solo picks
up and juxtaposes the rival whole tone scale to the original one. Vaughan
Williams next turns to noble C major chords, piano, for 'some solemn
immortal birth;' then at 'On the frontiers to eyes invincible [Whitman wrote
'impenetrable'], / Some soul is passing over') merges the chordal aspect
with the ascending whole tone scale (rising major chords on Db-Eb-F-G-A)
in the solo violin, pianissimo -- the last note in the solo violin
(high E#) tantalisingly never quite resolving B major.
The printed score for the Gloucester première was prepared for
performance by Jeremy Lee-Browne, one of Austin's great grandsons.
Nothing so Charming as Musick, Martin Lee-Browne's biography of
Frederic Austin, is published by Thames Publishing (c/o William Elkin Music Services, +44 (0)1603 721302). 'Whispers
of heavenly death' was given its public première in Gloucester Cathedral
on Sat l8 September 2001 by Pamela Helen Stephen (mezzo-soprano), with the
Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Richard Hickox. Frederic Austin's overture
Sea Venturers was also performed in the closing concert of this year's
Three Choirs Festival (Saturday 25 August 2001). Austin's symphony has just
(this week) been recorded for issue on the British Music Society label.
Copyright © 1 November 2001
Roderic Dunnett, Coventry, UK
PHILIP LANCASTER'S THREE CHOIRS REVIEW
THE VAUGHAN WILLIAMS SOCIETY WEBSITE
HEAR VAUGHAN WILLIAMS SPEAK
& Vision home
Petr Altrichter >>