Beyond the bird: Vaughan Williams’s Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1

With 2014 the centenary year of World War I, all things 1914 are being reconsidered, not least musical contributions from those involved. Vaughan Williams’s ‘pastoral romance’ The Lark Ascending is arguably the best-known product of the conflict; composed on the brink of the war, its nostalgic aura lends it a particular poignancy, with the bird’s dying call seemingly portentous of the horror to come. However, the popularity of this piece comes at a price, meaning that some of the composer’s other works from this time have been overlooked.

Take, for example, Vaughan Williams’s Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1. Written in 1906, the composer revised it in 1914. Based on folk songs collected in the county, the Rhapsody begins with a slow introduction before moving into a buoyant Allegro. However, it is underpinned by a sense of wistful nostalgia: opening with bird-like oboe calls and clarinet flourishes over a carpet of shimmering strings, Vaughan Williams then introduces a viola idea (dominated by yearning appoggiaturas) which can only be described as elegiac. Expanded in full orchestra, it is accompanied by nostalgic modally-inflected harmonies and sinking chromatic lines. Even the apparently sunny nature of the next episode, a lilting cor anglais melody, disintegrates into a restless, searching passage: any pastoral idyll is eventually undermined. After all, the composer’s folk song project was an attempt to grab onto a disappearing past, an idea which gained additional poignancy as the country teetered on the edge of disaster.

Even the infectious bassoon and cello melody gains a particular significance: perhaps this buoyant march conveys the sense of optimism at the start of the war. Once again, though, this is only temporary: the cor anglais melody returns, this time imbued with a greater sense of longing. The positive fa├žade is shattered, revealing an underlying sense of crisis.

The peaceful opening material is reprised at the Rhapsody’s end, this time tainted by the dark clouds from earlier on. With disaster fast approaching, it seems little wonder that Vaughan Williams would return to this particular work in 1914: it encapsulated the sense of anxiety and loss which would characterise the years to come.