Vaughan Williams, Britten & Tchaikovsky


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To the collective mind, the word “orchestra” generally means a symphony orchestra, with string, wind and percussion instruments in the most diverse combinations. Beautiful and impressive as all that may be, we sometimes forget that an orchestra can be differently composed and still be as impressive and beautiful, as in the case of the harmony orchestras of Beethoven’s time, the percussion orchestras of the 20th century and the string orchestras of the period 1860-1940. Yes, composers sometimes declared with conviction that a particular piece for string orchestra was in fact their best work. That’s reason enough for Anima Eterna to put on an entire programme for string orchestra on occasion.

Ralph Vaughan Williams is very popular in the UK, but less well known elsewhere. Nevertheless his Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis is much loved everywhere. Vaughan Williams worked on the editing of The English Hymnal in 1906, collecting all kinds of old songs for the task. In doing so, his affectionate eye fell upon a theme from a Psalter dating back to 1567, by “the Father of Music”, Thomas Tallis. The special modality, the “ancient” mood and the understatedly dramatic lyrics left him deeply moved. He came up with a plan to turn it into a grand composition to reflect those qualities. However, Vaughan Williams also knew Tallis from his 40-voice motet Spem in alium, his bold harmonies, and his talent for playing with the acoustics of an English cathedral. This led in 1910 to the Fantasia for the Three Choirs Festival at Gloucester Cathedral. He evoked Tallis in grand polyphony, in a solo quartet, an “echo orchestra” and a “large” orchestra, all for the string family. We find polyphonic passages, immense blocks of chords, antiphonal dialogues, and lonesome solos: intimacy in dialogue with grandeur!

Benjamin Britten is another major British name. We welcome him into this programme through his Simple Symphonie, written by a 21-year-old man, which brings to the surface the themes of his earlier piano work: themes of an 11- and 13-year-old boy. Opus 4 nonetheless sounds like a work of a “more mature” period. The four movements are based on older models, such as the Bourrée and the Sarabande, but gain a new lease of life through rich harmony and mischievous forays.

Plenty is known and published about Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. What is less well known is his admiration for Mozart, whom he discovered as a ten-year-old lad at a performance of Don Giovanni. He was truly delighted and found himself moved not only by the music but also by the dramatic content of the work. He wrote the Serenade at age 40, and considered it not only a sign of his veneration of Mozart, but also his best work. (“J’aime cette Sérénade à la folie”.) He avoided straying into epigonism or pastiche. His model is interpreted through his own lens, allowing the every facet of the string orchestra to blossom. His fascination for folk music and the countryside also play an important role. It is remarkable that this work by this famous tragic composer is written entirely in a major key. Do the biographies really tell us the deeper truth? He wrote of his Serenade, that it was composed out of “inner need”. His citations of two popular songs from a collection by Balakirev complete the programme: three magnificent “modern” works founded in “heritage”. 

That heritage is also still honoured by the fact that the string players in this programme use gut strings, the type of string for which our three composers composed. The warm glow of these strings conveys the affection the authors felt in composing this dazzling music, and projects the soul of this music so much more authentically than the more modern steel strings. Moderate use of vibrato, or even none at all, further allows the gut string to sound in all its glory.

Jos van Immerseel

Translation: Anna Asbury

Concert photos in Concertgebouw Brugge


From the archives: live recording at Concertgebouw Brugge (03.04.2009)