On Ralph Vaughan Williams’ ‘Flos Campi’…
Ask many people what their favourite work by Ralph Vaughan Williams is and more likely than not they will reply with either his famous ‘Romance’ for Violin and Orchestra The Lark Ascending or his sublime work for string orchestra Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. Fair enough, The Lark Ascending is very pretty and the Fantasia is a masterpiece, in my mind the best piece RVW would ever write. However my favourite work of his, and the work that I find the most inspiring, and the most challenging is his piece Flos Campi. Now, I should qualify this statement by stating that Flos Campi is also one of the silliest, most baffling and (in some parts) most un-Vaughan Williams piece that RVW ever wrote; it is part pastoral elegy, part crazy pagan party. And I love it.
So what makes it so inspiring but yet so baffling?
Well, to really get to the nub of this issue you would have to know the vast output of RVW’s work, to understand his position as celebrated musical icon of the first half of the twentieth-century and a little of his religious, political and social beliefs. But presuming you don’t know much about that, it comes down to two things: the idea behind it, and the way it sounds.
Flos Campi (literally translated as ‘Flower of the Fields’, if anything adding to the RVW pastoralism) is a work for small orchestra, solo viola and wordless chorus. This combination in itself is very odd, beautiful and inspired, but very odd. One can imagine RVW sitting at his desk and thinking “today I’m going to write something different! Where shall I start? Orchestra? Yes. Solo violin? No, a viola would be more different. Anything else? Well why not – a wordless chorus!” Not a usual combination (certainly not for 1925) but one that works so well and constantly make the ears tingle with new sonorities. The work is separated into six movements each of which is prefaced with a quotation in Latin (and why not?) from the Old Testament Song of Solomon, one of the most sensual and sexually charged passages of the Bible. This sensuality is reflected in RVW’s music, moving from the languishing for love to the final ecstasies, to what can only be described as the gentle consummation of the sixth section. Steamy stuff. And not a lark in sight.
The work begins with a celebrated bi-tonal (two keys played simultaneously) duet for oboe and viola which sets the mood for the piece as a whole; this then gives way to unusual parallel intervals in the orchestra before the impassioned entry of the choir. The second movement seeks to neutralise some of that passion with long modal polyphony (many voices) in the choir and folky elements from the viola – much more the RVW that many know and love. It is in the fourth movement that we really get to the bonkers stuff, a strange full orchestra pagan dance which sounds something like a 1930s film score of a Medieval banquet, full of droning woodwind, staccato brass and more parallel fourths and fifths. To emphasise this silliness, the fifth movement returns to the modal polyphony but now with a quiet side drum beating the dance rhythm from earlier. Just odd. The final movement returns to the oboe/viola duet before a long passage of beautiful pastoral polyphony, finishing with the solo viola.
It is a strange piece, in fact it feels like two strange pieces surgically attached to each other. It seems to ask so many questions: why the instrumental combinations? Why the Latin text but wordless chorus? Why the crazy dance and lush polyphony? Why never do anything like this again? Maybe because these questions aren’t easily answerable it becomes more alluring. Certainly of all RVW’s output it is Flos Campi that seems to appeal most to current composers (both Adès and Knussen have stated such) and although never likely to be performed that often (due to the instrumental resources), it seems to be getting more performances as the years go by. I like the quote from Gustav Holst (he of some equally baffling music including the exotic Sāvitri and the Beni Mora suite) after hearing the first performance: “I couldn’t get hold of it”. I agree. But it’s great.
Flos Campi (movement 1)
To purchase this recording (Jacques Orchestra, Cecil Aronowitz, EMI 567221) click here.