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Incidental music to Electra (Preview)

  • Text
  • Electra
  • Music
  • Williams
by Ralph Vaughan Williams | Orchestra and chorus

Introduction Ralph

Introduction Ralph Vaughan Williams’ first musical foray into Greek plays was his incidental music to Aristophanes’ The Wasps, presented by Cambridge University in 1909. The production used the original Greek text, as is still the tradition there, though English translations of the plays were becoming popular at the time, amongst them those by Gilbert Murray, the Oxford University Professor of Greek. In 1911 the dancer Isadora Duncan asked Murray for permission to mount three of his versions of Greek plays, with her brother Augustin directing. Murray had been advised by his friend Herbert Fisher that “my brother-in-law Ralph Vaughan Williams (who is a musical composer and therefore prejudiced) would like to see a big orchestra and some frankly modern music”. 1 Vaughan Williams in his late thirties had actually previously written to Murray: “May I say how much it has distressed me to hear those wonderful lines in Elektra [sic] and your other plays mauled about by (as it seems to me) quite the wrong kind of musical setting.” 2 The musicologist Henry Hadow had also recommended Vaughan Williams: “a very good musician—also keen on poetry and full of understanding.” 3 When Isadora Duncan finally met Vaughan Williams and danced for him, he immediately found “the melting beauty of her phrasing” 4 exactly the sort of movement for which he could write. As he began work on the plays, Vaughan Williams wrote to Murray, stating: There is nothing I should like better than to be associated in such a production as you foreshadow—however problematical it may be. I have had several shots at some Electra music and have found the task much harder than I thought—I cannot make up my mind what sort of music would be best and naturally until I can do that the music itself refuses to come. However your letter has excited me so that I believe my imagination is beginning to work. 5 In a later letter he becomes more specific: ...the problem gets more insoluble the more I work at it. I tried setting them in the way I suggested to you—a sort of chant without any accompaniment—but it did not seem to work altogether—I have tried other parts in a more operatic method—the result is rather a mixture—the only way I think will be a sort of trial performance of some of the music when it is ready. I can’t hope to satisfy you and Miss Duncan and Augustin (who wants the choruses spoken!). I want to ask you a lot about the Bacchae choruses—whether all the big choruses should be sung throughout—or whether parts spoken—and what bits should be murmured and what parts declaimed. 6 The trial performance of the three scores finally happened, with a subsequent public performance of the music taking place at London’s Royal Court Theatre on Friday 31 May, 1 Herbert Fisher to Gilbert Murray, 5 November 1907. 2 Vaughan Williams to Gilbert Murray, October 1911. 3 Henry Hadow to Gilbert Murray, 2 October 1909 cited in Duncan Wilson, Gilbert Murray, OM, 1866-1957, (Oxford: OUP, 1987). 4 Ursula Vaughan Williams, R.V.W. A Biography of Ralph Vaughan Williams (Oxford: OUP, 1964). 5 Vaughan Williams to Gilbert Murray, 12 October 1911. 6 Vaughan Williams to Gilbert Murray, 6 November 1911. PEV03 – vi

1912. In its 25 May Musical Gossip column, English newspaper The Globe included a preview of the performance, with the prescient remarks: In connection with Mr Vaughan Williams’ musical setting of choruses from Euripides, to be given at the Court Theatre next Friday, we are informed that “they are an attempt at something new, and something which is neither German nor French. This music is no experiment in style. It would seem, rather, as though the composer had disclaimed all styles and all schools, and found direct inspiration in the material of the poet’s inspiration, and the result is something of undeniable beauty.” A chorus from ‘The Electra’ and from ‘The Bacchae’ and four from ‘Iphigenia in Tauris’ should make up a programme of interest. 7 Electra is the central figure of this tragedy. The daughter of King Agamemnon and Queen Clytemnestra, she is shattered in childhood by the shock of an experience too hard to bear, growing to become a poisoned and haunted woman eating her heart in ceaseless broodings of hate and love, alike unsatisfied. How does the history set out above tally with the manuscripts found in the British Library? Let us begin with two choruses from the second section. The first of these, O for the ships, is set in ‘a sort of chant’ accompanied by a dominant pedal on the strings and with occasional interjections from woodwinds, horn, cymbals and harp. The second, There came a man, has thrumming string and harp chords with the voices doubled in mostly single woodwind instruments. This chorus has a touch of Vaughan Williams’ superb archetypal melody against the words “How, orb on orb, to strike with cold the Trojan”. The first section, for Electra herself, Onward O labouring tread, is set as recitative, with the addition of pure speech occasionally. The singing and much of the speaking is against chords, often dissonant to reflect the subject matter, and with the small orchestra setting the mood of each section. Vaughan Williams’ treatment of dissonance is a premonition of his use of it in the symphonies to come, although the music is less elaborate than his music for The Wasps. Here, he mostly concerns himself with the vocal line and how it carries the text in such a natural flow. The chorus is made up of women’s voices. As Vaughan Williams specified, ‘the solos may be divided among the members of the chorus’, after Electra has disappeared from the stage. Alan Tongue, Editor Editorial notes The manuscripts are held in the British Library Archives within two folios. The editor arranged them into four sources in the preparation of this edition. Sources: A MS 71480 Instrumental parts, complete 7 The Globe, 25 May 1912. B MS 71480 Chorus parts, mulitple copies, complete C MS 71479 Vocal short scores and sketches, incomplete D MS 71479 Full scores, incomplete PEV03 – vii

Score Library

Electra Incidental Music Vaughan Williams