Friday, 15 February 2008

Dark and tempestuous?

On New Year's Day (a day I invariably find grim and depressing) one of my brighter interludes was on catching some of Tony Palmer's documentary about Ralph Vaughan Williams - called O thou transcendent - on TV. A bit later I decided I'd like to see the whole thing, so ordered the DVD, which arrived last week.

Being a twentieth century classical music lover (rather than any kind of music student) for the past thirty-odd years, I was surprised to hear of so many musicians who dismissed RVW's work as second-rate. I'd heard Constant Lambert's comment about "a cow looking over a gate" but hadn't realised such views were as widespread as the film would have it.

Palmer definitely had a biased agenda when making his film. He seemed determined to portray RVW as a tortured man whose anguish was shown in his music. To this end, he chose mainly dark and tempestuous extracts from a repertoire that, to me, hardly ever comes across that way. I was surprised to hear the Tallis Fantasia described in that vein: although it's an emotional and melancholy piece, I've never thought of it as dark or despairing. Surely any composer worth his salt has a full emotional range? One of the reasons I've never liked Mozart (and am branded a musical heretic for the opinion) is that his music always comes across to me as too light and frothy - lacking any depth.

One of the likeable things about Palmer's film was the almost universal praise for Vaughan Williams for his humility, his generosity of spirit and his charitable work. If he was really so saintly, I'm sure we can forgive him for having been bad-tempered.

It was nice to see and hear a lot of people who actually knew Vaughan Williams (including his widow), still alive and kicking when the film was made. As RVW died fifty years ago, several of them must have been in their nineties. I was surprised to find that even Michael Kennedy, who seemed to be in his late sixties, is over eighty! Encouraging for those of us who are well past 21...

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