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<<  -- 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.

Ralph Vaughan Williams and Martin Lee-Browne

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







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