In the Fen Country: Landscape and Music in the Work of Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams


Robert Gallon (1845 – 1925): The Water’s Edge (1870s)

A strong sympathy for the landscape often entwines itself with a type of religious sensibility, particularly the pantheistic one.  In the decorative murals with which the wealthy classes of Rome during the Imperial centuries adorned their domestic lives, the idyllic scene, with its groves and grazing sheep, invariably contains a rustic temple.  In Hellenistic poetry, too, the writer – it might be Theocritus or at a later date Ovid – in describing the sylvan setting of Sicily or Arcadia emphasizes the presence everywhere of the nature-spirits.  Ovid’s Metamorphoses seem in part to be an explanation of why everywhere in the ancient world one encountered innumerable altars and shrines.  To the pagan mentality, everything, every tree and stream and mountain, shared in the quality of the sacred, and offered a home to the spirits and demigods.  So too in Romantic painting and verse, the artist’s response to the natural scene records his sense of the ubiquity of spirit.  Thus in William Wordsworth’s famous sonnet “The world is too much with us” (1802), the calamity of the emergent industrial and commercial order manifests itself most poignantly in the terrible loneliness of being cut off from participation in the aura of the elements –

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

The lyric subject of the poem, concluding that the modern dispensation has left men “for everything… out of tune,” wishes that he were (although he is not) “a Pagan suckled in a creed outworn,” that is, someone who might “have glimpses that would make me less forlorn” of “Proteus rising from the sea.”  That men should have become acutely aware of nature in the early nineteenth century is hardly surprising.  The social and economic developments of the period, the hypertrophy of cities and the dissolution of ancient arrangements in the countryside, wrought changes in the very appearance of the rural landscape.  A generation later than Wordsworth, in the “Wessex” stories and novels of Thomas Hardy, the situation has grown even more acute.  In the short story “The Fiddler of the Reels,” the great fact of existence is the Crystal Palace, in the year of whose construction much of the action takes place.  The countryside is emptying into the great cities; railroads have appeared in the provinces to draw away the young people, and the expansion of a new order of industry and finance has begun to alter the familiar aspects of field and forest, river valley and hill.


Robert Gallon (1845-1925): On the Way to Church, South Downs (1870s)

Art is frequently a response to loss and the resultant absence, as generically in lyric poetry.  The elegiac impulse finds one of its most profound expressions in the response to landscape – often to vanishing landscape – in the work of what is sometimes called the English Pastoral School of musical composition, the heyday of which was the early twentieth century.  The two instigators of English musical idyllicism, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872 – 1958) and Gustav Holst (1874 – 1934), had been fellow students at the Royal College of Music, London, in the 1890s, where both studied composition with Charles Villiers Stanford.  Both men experienced the powerful intuition that Stanford, notwithstanding his technical mastery, spoke in a musical language insufficiently native, and, in a paradoxical way, insufficiently au courant.  Stanford took his models in mid-nineteenth century German music – in Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Brahms – and except for an occasional Irish inflection, his music sounded a good deal like theirs.  But what musical language would be au courant?  Holst, who came from a long line of church organists and musicians, suggested to Vaughan Williams that they investigate the music of the rural parishes and from that milieu their curiosity took them quite naturally into folksong.  As did Bela Bartók and Zoltán Kodály in Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria around the same time, Vaughan Williams and Holst began to tramp the countryside in Somerset, Hampshire, Essex, East Anglia, and Norfolk, notebooks at ready, to collect and annotate the archaic song-tradition that they well knew was on the verge of extinction.

These were the years from 1902 to 1905.  In addition to their project of preserving the treasury of the traditional ballads, love songs, and lullabies, both men had the notion that English folksong could become the basis of a novel and truly English concert music.  That music would be new because its basis would be more ancient than that of the Germanic conservatory-vocabulary employed by Stanford and his peers.  Such music would also inevitably bear a stamp of wistfulness and regret; it would be a belated music, drawing nourishment from a vanishing phenomenon, the oral tradition of the songs themselves, which the urban revue and the newly all-pervasive commercial song threatened to banish forever from the national consciousness.  Even when the folk-song based composition conjured an atmosphere of bucolic serenity, the specter of a vanished way of life would haunt it – and that haunted quality would be integral to composition’s aesthetic.  Such a quality is largely missing from the “folk rhapsodies” that the previous generation of composers had sometimes produced, as in Stanford’s Irish rhapsodies and Edward German’s foray into Welsh folksong.  Their models were Franz Liszt, Antonin Dvorak, and Johannes Brahms.  The scores are only superficially British or English; they fall on the ear like imitations of Central European music.

There was one additional consideration – or rather a conclusion that both Vaughan Williams and Holst drew independently and that struck them as exploitable.  The modes and melodic outlines of English folksong reflected the regional landscape; the tunes especially grew from the topography.  As in Wordsworth’s lyrical ballad “The Solitary Reaper,” where the singing field-girl’s half-heard song seems to the reporter to express the “natural sorrow, loss, or pain,” that belongs to traditional life, in contact with the earth and season and sky: So too for the fellow folksong collectors, the tunes that they took down from those who sang them seemed saturated with an ethos – a character of place that imprinted itself on its denizens and that they bespoke in song.  As Vaughan Williams wrote many years later in his study of National Music (1934), folksong is the expression of “the absolutely unsophisticated though naturally musical man… one who is untraveled and therefore self-dependent for his inspiration [and] whose artistic utterance will be entirely spontaneous and unself-conscious.”  Or as Hubert Foss writes of Vaughan Williams himself in his study of the composer, he “grows from the earth”; according to Foss, Vaughan Williams “likes that which grows naturally” and “his roots are in the past.”  Of Holst, Wilfrid Mellers writes in Romanticism and the Twentieth Century (1962), that folksong studies taught him how to compose “in lines that are vocally modal [and] free in rhythm,” so that even his purely instrumental inspirations resemble “folk-song or plainsong” in their melodic outlines.


John Constable (1776-1837): Branch Hill Pond (1825)

Folksong early began to inform and vitalize Vaughan Williams’ music, which it does already in the “symphonic impression,” so described, for orchestra entitled In the Fen Country, composed in 1904 and given its first performance under Thomas Beecham in 1907.  In the Fen Country, in many ways RVW’s first characteristic work, purports to represent its composer’s complex aesthetic, emotional, and spiritual response to the extensive southeastern marshlands of England – that half-aqueous world, with its dykes and canals, and its university and cathedral towns of Cambridge and Ely.  As Foss puts it in his study, in the Fen Country “gives… a picture of the countryside where Vaughan Williams found folk-song,” adding that, “those frigid, frosty mornings that make the journey from Cambridge to Ely so soul-searching a trek are portrayed here.”  Yet In the Fen Country quotes no folk melody.  Rather, Vaughan Williams lets the pattern of folk melody animate his rhythmically free, generally slow, and modally minor instrumental lines.  The work, lasting around a quarter of an hour in performance, opens with a long improvisation-like solo on the cor anglais, joined gradually in a freely evolving polyphony by other solo instruments.  Although the motifs are songlike, the effect on the listener is rather of something non-human – “the place in itself,” perhaps.  After a number of episodes, some quite portentous and brassy, In the Fen Country ends on a drawn-out viola solo that fades into silence.

Holst composed his Somerset Rhapsody, Op. 21, in 1906.  Unlike Vaughan Williams’ In the Fen Country, Holst’s Somerset Rhapsody incorporates actual folksongs, including a traditional sheep shearing song, whose real topic despite its title is the custom of countryside courtship; and a march, High Germany.”  The sheep shearing song keeps in the minor key and suggests the melancholy of the lovelorn; the march is in the major key, outgoing, rhythmically incisive, and bold.  Holst exploits the contrast and drives the work to its big moment with a brassy treatment of the march, in augmentation.  A Somerset Rhapsody conjures a more human atmosphere than does In the Fen Country although in its quieter concluding passages after the climax on “High Germany,” Holst’s score strongly resembles Vaughan Williams’ score.  Vaughan Williams composed his own version of the sheep shearing song, for female voices and chamber-orchestral accompaniment, assigning it to his suite Folksongs of the Four Seasons (1950).  The tune “High Germany” makes an appearance in Vaughan Williams’ English Folk Song Suite, for wind band (1923).

Concerning landscape – and its aesthetic and metaphysical meanings – the philosopher Roger Scruton has written in his study of Beauty (2009) that, “Landscapes… are very far from works of art – they owe their appeal not to symmetry, unity and form, but to an openness, grandeur and world-like expansiveness, in which it is we and not they that are contained.”  In confronting the landscape, then, the percipient subject experiences something like a cosmic moment, understanding his own mortal limitations against the enduring earthly and vegetative environment that affords him a home and yet, being non-sentient, remains alien or at least indifferent to him.  Yet vegetative though it might be, the landscape can stand as metaphor for something else sublime and, with respect to man, entirely prior and creative – namely the divine.  In this respect it is interest to reflect that neither Vaughan Williams nor Holst was conventionally religious.  Vaughan Williams professed agnosticism but also took religious experience seriously; Holst inclined to thoroughgoing ecumenicism, showing an interest in mystic Christianity, Hinduism, and the whole range of esoteric traditions, but belonged to no sect, Christian or otherwise.

In the years 1906 – 07, Vaughan Williams composed his Three Norfolk Rhapsodies, fragments of a projected but unachieved “Norfolk Symphony.”  The Third Rhapsody is lost; the Second was never played in its composer’s lifetime, while the First established itself among RVW’s early work.  In these works, following Holst’s manner in A Somerset Rhapsody, Vaughan Williams used actual folk melodies.  In the Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1, for example, we hear “The Captain’s Apprentice,“A Bold Young Sailor Courted Me, and “On Board a 98.  In the Norfolk Rhapsody No. 2, we hear, among others, the hymn-like “King’s Lynn,” sometimes sung as a chapel song.  As was the case with In the Fen Country, the two Norfolk Rhapsodies, in exploiting the modally flavored folksongs, require a largely minor-key harmonics, saturating the musical structure in a mood of nostalgia.  Knowing that John Constable (1776 – 1837) and Albert Goodwin (1845 – 1932) painted the regions from which RVW collected his tunes adds to the listener’s appreciation of the spirit that the composer evokes through his purely musical structures.  Foss describes the First Rhapsody, the only one known when he wrote his study, as “a deeply considered work… a moving piece of music that never rises above piano, and closes in the sea of mist of [its] beginning.”


John Constable (1776-1825): Old Sarum (1834)

Vaughan Williams wrote his best-known composition, A Lark Ascending, in 1914, when he scored it for violin and piano; later in 1920 he arranged the piano part for small ensemble, giving the score its familiar form, as a “Romance for Violin and Orchestra.”  Taking its inspiration from a poem of the same name by George Meredith (1828 – 1909), A Lark Ascending has acquired something like iconic status in English music, as the prime representative piece of the national-pastoral school, such that many people who know little else from that repertory know this gentle composition.  Foss remarks that the two main melodies of the score “are coloured by English folk-song.”  The solo violin part is nearly pictorial in its depiction of the avian ascent, its long cadenza-like passages being interrupted by episodes in dance rhythm in the orchestra.  If the rustic piping heard halfway through the score were close in its archaism to Pre-Raphaelite preciosity, this would perhaps be the result of the listener having heard the work too often.  The “sheer beauty” of A Lark, to borrow a phrase from Foss, should be reserved for special occasions.  Overplaying the composition (by broadcasting it, for example, three times a week during rush hour) threatens to deaden the sensibility to its delicate gestures and ecstatic sweetness.

Holst’s Egdon Heath and Vaughan Williams’ Flos Campi date from the mid-1920s.  Holst’s inspiration came from a Hardy novel, The Return of the Native (1878), one of the author’s “Wessex Tales,” in which the eponymous geographical tract rises to the level of a character in the drama.  Hardy describes Egdon Heath in something like antediluvian terms, as swarthy, forbidding, and almost actively inimical to the human beings who must cross it going from one habitable place to another.  In Holst’s tone-poem (1927), one of his masterpieces, the composer eschews any quotation of traditional melody and confines himself to pure tone-painting, evoking in sound the emotions that Hardy’s verbal description produces in its reader.  This means that in mood Egdon Heath stands light-years distant from A Somerset Rhapsody.  A slow, stalking figure in the double basses establishes the atmosphere; a quiet horn call, as from far away, and spare counterpoint in the flutes and oboes, followed by a fugitive rustling in the violins and violas, make for an impression of ghostly, nocturnal activity.  Halfway through the score, there is something like a funeral cortege, colored by the trombones and tuba in their lowest registers.  That these sounds tell of a tragic vision, the score’s association with Hardy’s grim narrative guarantees even though listeners can assign no specific concepts to the various stark motifs.

Flos Campi – Suite for Viola, Chorus, and Orchestra (1925), which like Egdon Heath quotes no actual folk songs, is not topically connected with the English countryside although its Latin title means “Flower of the Field.”  The suite’s ostensible subject, the Biblical Song of Songs, celebrates that psychological point where erotic passion for the beloved passes over into mystic contemplation of absolute beauty.  Nevertheless, Flos Campi will strike the listener as the consummation of that trend in RVW’s creativity, which begins with In the Fen Country; the music seems to spring from the identical, and quite English, landscape, the Biblical allusion notwithstanding.  Professor Mellers in his book on RVW The Vision of Albion (1989) places Flos Campi in company with a group of large-scale choral and vocal works that its author composed around the same time – including his setting of The Magnificat (1932).  Mellers identifies the solo viola with “the voice of Pan, or Nature, or of human lover and beloved, or he might be… all of these simultaneously.”  Mellers also identifies the oboe, almost as important as the viola in its part, as specifically in context “a pastoral instrument.”  In the last of the work’s six movements, according to Mellers, “Man and Nature… attain at-one-ment,” if only temporarily.  Foss too lavishes praise on Flos Campi, calling it “one of [RVW’s] most original, and most important, expressions,” and praising its “lone philosophic attitude of thought.”  The device of a wordless chorus has rarely been employed so convincingly, not even by Maurice Ravel in his Daphnis and Chloe ballet.

Vaughan Williams wrote Five Variants on Dives and Lazarus for string orchestra and harp in 1939, to be played at the World Fair in New York City.  In this score the composer once again draws on an actual folk tune, “Dives and Lazarus.”  As in the case of Flos Campi, although RVW does not proffer the score as a musical landscape, that is nevertheless its feeling.

In the last year of his life Holst produced a small but potent work that belongs to the “landscape” genre – his Lyric Movement for Viola and Chamber Orchestra (1934), a work smaller in scale yet close in mood and intention to Flos Campi.  To his soloist, Holst gives the same type of improvisation-like, continuously developing line as RVW to his in Flos Campi, and the same yearning for fusion with the object of contemplation flavors both scores.  Mellers in Romanticism and the Twentieth Century writes of its “tenderness in the sonorous spacing of the harmony.”  One might justly attribute to the Lyric Movement what Mellers attributes to Egdon Heath – that in it the personality of the composer is “purged away in the bare organum-like harmony and transparent scoring.”  Was this brief sketch supposed to be the slow middle movement of a three-part concerted work?  Nevertheless, it achieves stand-alone perfection.  Holst died before his sixtieth birthday.  In listening to the Lyric Movement, one can only regret that a composer capable of such concentrated expression did not live to explore the remarkable new avenues of musical exploration that he was, in that moment, opening up.

14 thoughts on “In the Fen Country: Landscape and Music in the Work of Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams

  1. Pingback: In the Fen Country: Landscape and Music in the Work of Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams | @the_arv

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    • The mixture of emotions that Holst and Vaughan Williams could elicit is wide indeed. As you suggest, the Lyric Movement or Flos Campi can elicit intense opposite emotions all at once. It might well go beyond beauty into the sublime.

  4. I have drafted an Orthosphere post on the connection between landscape and what C. S. Lewis called “joy,” and your article prompts me to finish it off and post it as a follow-up piece. The one aspect of joy is the sublime, which I take to be the light of eternity “shining through” the world of appearances, and I (like Lewis) had always connected sublimity to distance and depth (and inaccessibility) in a landscape. The sight of a far country easily awakens longing for the farthest country.

    Your article helped me to see how this literal nostalgia is enriched by the metaphorical nostalgia for lost times. In addition to being highly susceptible to the sublime, I am a complete sucker for temporal nostalgia. I’ve long understood the two were somehow connected, but you’ve brought them together very neatly here.

    • I look forward to your completed item, JM. Distance is an important concept or idea or… whatever the right word might be. In the work of a composer whom I did not treat in my discussion, Frederick Delius, distance lives right at the core of the aesthetic. When Delius, at the behest of his father, was trying to squeeze profit out of an orange grove in Florida, he had the experience of hearing black workers singing in the dusk after their day’s labor one or two plantations away. It struck him so powerfully that he tried to recreate the impression in any number of his scores, most impressively in the choral finale of his big variation-work for chorus and orchestra, Appalachia; and almost at the same level in his Song of the High Hills, whose geographic inspiration was the Norwegian Alps. The mood of Appalachia is nocturnal, just before the dawn; that of The Song of the High Hills is noontide, but the musical evocation of space and distance stays with the listener for a long time.

      You are right, I believe, that distance is related to the past — to what is irrecoverable, such that its loss is a painful thing to bear. But distance also bespeaks teleology. In that mode it has to do with redemption, the antithesis of loss.

  5. Thank you for this!

    I would be fascinated if you were to direct your attention to RVW’s film music, in a sequel – place and movement through great distances in 49th Parallel and Scott of the Antarctic (and its related symphony)!

    • Dear David: It’s a pleasure to have readers — so let me thank you. RVW indeed wrote a number of “landscape cues” for Powell and Pressburger’s 49th Parallel. I only omitted to address them because they seemed beyond the scope of my topic. RVW’s Pastoral Symphony (No. 3) and his Ninth are also, like his Sinfonia Antartica (No. 7), “landscape music” on a large scale. The Ninth grew from RVW’s familiarity with and intense interest in the Salisbury plain and its antiquity. It was just about RVW’s last work; he died while Sir Adrian Boult was recording it and when the record was issued in 1958, it began with a short track in which Boult announces the composer’s death to the assembled musicians.

      In my judgment, the Scott of the Antarctic film score works better as a symphony. Instead of short cues, we get extended presentation of the material. As in the Pastoral Symphony, RVW makes canny use of a wordless soprano singing in vocalise. The calculation is canny, but the effect is uncanny. Emotionally the Sinfonia Antartica and the Ninth Symphony are close. They are portentous and visionary and at moments ecstatic in a frightening way. Thinking about them makes me want to hear them again. Perhaps I’ll devote part of the day to that.

      • Thank you for this fine appendix! I need to get better acquainted with his Ninth… his Sinfonia Antartica is one of my favorites, but such ‘strong stuff’ that it is not for as many moments as the Pastoral Symphony – or the London Symphony (a different ‘local’ music, ending in movement into distance: I’ve started to get acquainted with the recording of the 1914 version, too, but don’t yet have a real sense of how they compare).

        Taking up asinusspinasmasticans’s question, my immediate response would be, some of Alan Hovhaness’s work – though I’m not sure how I’d defend that in detail, if tackled on it…

  6. Is there anything comparable in American music? I listen to Howard Hanson’s Symphony #2 Romantic, and I feel some of the same aesthetic motions, but more accessible to me as an American. When requested to score music for an interpretation of Look Homeward, Angel , I leaned very heavily on American composers; Hanson, Copeland, Barber, Thompson, and Ives, as none of the European or British works suggested to me suited so American a story as Thomas Mann’s. I did use, however, to great effect, the wordless vocal solo opening of the fourt movement of Vaughan Williams Symphony #3 Pastoral.

  7. It’s piquant that you should mention Howard Hanson. I am currently working on an essay about him that I hope to post here at The Orthosphere sometime soon. Hanson’s music often conveys a sense of mystical experience, but it is not so much connected with landscape. It is Whitmanesque or Emersonian, and it differs from the topographical ecstasy in Vaughan Williams and Holst. The Midwestern composer Leo Sowerby wrote a number of evocative tone-poems inspired by the wheat fields and lake country of his home territory of Michigan and Wisconsin, but compared with In the Fen Country or Egdon Heath, they are not at the same artistic level. Hanson is a fine composer, whose music I value highly, but in his case, too, I would have to say that he operates at a lower level artistically than RVW.

    There is the matter of Charles Ives, of course. The middle movement of his Second Suite for Orchestra carries the title, “The Rock-Strewn Hills Join in the People’s Outdoor Celebration.” It’s nothing like Flos Campi, but it bears comparison in quality.

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