Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958)
“The cantata Willow-Wood for baritone, women’s voices and orchestra first appeared as a scena for baritone and piano in March 1903 when it was sung by Campbell McInnes in a concert at St. James’s Hall, Piccadilly. Again Vaughan Williams set words from Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s sequence The House of Life. The genesis of these early works seems to be interrelated, and Michael Kennedy has drawn our attention to a motif, also in the song ‘Love’s Last Gift,’ which this time became the opening of Willow-Wood.
“Vaughan Williams orchestrated Willow-Wood soon after the first performance and later added an ad.lib. women’s chorus (much of it wordless), and in this form it was performed at the Music League Festival in Liverpool on 25th September 1909, for which Breitkopf and Härtel printed the vocal score. There the soloist was the celebrated baritone Frederic Austin, and the conductor the Welsh choral conductor Harry Evans. Despite some positive press notices and the fact that the vocal score had been published, it has not been heard again until now. Yet the composer clearly retained an affection for it; even three years before his death he was attempting to get it republished.
“Willow-Wood is the most substantial sequence in The House of Life, consisting of four interlinked sonnets. Commentators have attempted a number of interpretations of the richly-perfumed but opaque imagery. However, a clue is given by the poet himself in an article he wrote in 1871. Referring to the first poem only, Rossetti stated: ‘the sonnet describes a dream or trance of divided love momentarily reunited by the longing fancy; and in the imagery of the dream, the face of the beloved rises through deep dark waters to kiss the lover.’ Vaughan Williams seems to have had no problem in coming to terms with the poems. His setting creates the musical equivalent of a Pre-Raphaelite tableau in which the evocative poetic images are translated into luxuriant textures. The work is a fine extended vehicle for the baritone whose widely-ranging melodic line demonstrates the composer’s close affinity with the human voice.
“Willow-Wood owes much of its impact to the orchestra and the atmosphere associated with the women’s choir, especially when they vocalise, a Vaughan Williams fingerprint we are now familiar with from so many scores. Like the atmospheric recently rediscovered Nocturne (more from Whitman’s Whispers of Heavenly Death) for baritone and orchestra, it is clear Vaughan Williams already had a formidable orchestral technique which in its day, just before Debussy and Ravel were generally heard in Britain, must have been considered very advanced and possibly was not treated sympathetically by Willow-Wood’s no-nonsense first conductor.” 1
1 Lewis Foreman, liner notes to Willow-Wood, by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Naxos 8.557798, 2–3.