The violist Philip Dukes explains his affinity for the British composer’s music
1. He tugs at the heart strings
Vaughan Williams seems to polarise opinion. There are the academics who will tell you he’s not a great composer, and that he doesn’t everything he should do. And then you’ve got those that respond emotionally. I undersand the academics, I can see that some bits don’t work technically, but to me it’s all about whether you respond emotionally.
When you sit down and listen to the Serenade to Music or the early Piano Quintet or Flos Campi, does it melt your heart? For me it does.
2. He understood the viola
Vaughan Williams was a very good viola player as a young man. He should probably have become a professional viola player and you can see the thread of his love for the instrument running through all of his string music.
It’s not like a Haydn String Quartet, which is led from the first violin. And it’s not like Prokofiev’s music where you think he doesn’t quite get it but makes it work anyway. It’s all about the inner parts, and the viola writing, in particular, is beautiful.
3. He puts you through your paces
To start with I was very intimated by Vaughan Williams’s music. It’s so exposed, so pure. There’s no margin for error. Throw in all the harmonics, held notes, and treble pianissimos and it’s your worst nightmare. And that makes it all the more rewarding - once you’ve discovered all the tricks to get around his style.
4. He sponged up influences
Can you imagine having a portfolio of teachers consisting of Bruch, Stanford, Parry and Ravel? That’s what Vaughan Williams had and that’s why, if you sat down and listened to every single piece he ever wrote you’d go on the most incredible journey - from the heavyweight Romantic pieces like the early Piano Quintet, through his folksong collecting period, to the much broader style he developed after his studies with Ravel.
Read our review of Songs of Travel, Philip Dukes’s Vaughan Williams CD also featuring pianist Anna Tilbrook and tenor James Gilchrist.