Ralph Vaughan Williams: Beyond My Dream — Music for Greek Plays

“Beyond My Dream” brings some early music of Ralph Vaughan Williams to light — and gives us a hint of what might have been.

George Gilbert Murray published what were considered to be the definitive English translations of ancient Greek plays. And he had very definite ideas of how they should be staged — including music.

He was not happy with settings of his translations by Granville Bantock and Gustav Holst. Murray wanted something that more closely followed the rhythm and stress patterns of the original Greek.

Enter graduate student Ralph Vaughan Williams. He was recommended to Murray by his friend Herbert Fisher — who was also Vaughan Williams’ brother in law.

Murray and Vaughan Williams worked together, developing three plays for performance. Along the way, famed dancer Isadora Duncan became involved. Her innovative dance techniques further inspired the young composer.

Unfortunately, the productions fell through, and the plays were never produced. Some of Vaughan Williams’ music was heard in a concert performance, then filed away. Only recently did conductor Alan Tongue find it again and prepared it for performance

Not all of the music has survived, but there’s enough to give the listener a sense of what RVW could have done. The Bacchae has but one selection: “Thou immaculate on high.” Two selections survive from “Electra.” “Iphigenia in Taurus” has five pieces, including the overture.

This music isn’t the pastoral English style Vaughan Williams would later perfect. There’s an indefinite modal quality to these works as if the music continually oscillates between tonalities. The phrasing is irregular, matching the declamation of the text without following English speech patterns.

To me, some of the selections sounded like prototypes of later spiritual works, such as “Pilgrim’s Progress.” Still, in these works, RVW’s style doesn’t sound fully gelled. And that’s a good thing. It gives this music an other-worldly quality.

Whether you’re a fan of RVW’s music or not, I think there’s quite a bit here to enjoy.

Ralph Vaughan Williams: Beyond My Dream
Music for Greek Plays
Heather Lowe, mezzo-soprano, The Joyful Company of Singers; Britten Sinfonia; Alan Tongue, conductor
Albion Records ALBCD033

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