This weekend, I'm playing a concert that includes a piece called The Banks of Green Willow by George Butterworth as well as the Third Symphony by Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Vaughan Williams is one of my very favorite composers, so I was down with that one. But the Butterworth is less well known. We weren't familiar with it at all and at the first rehearsal, it was a little hairy. I was concerned. I texted Monica from the break that night:

"Have you ever played anything by Butterworth? I'm wondering it if ever gets better than the read-through."

She texted back with: "No, I have not played any Butterworth, but I love her syrup."

Everyone's a comedian. (Actually I'm just jealous I didn't think of that first.)

My favorite remarks about the third symphony include Constant Lambert, who said that it reminded him of a cow looking over a gate and Stravinsky who described it as "like staring at cow for a long time."

As much as I've always liked Vaughan Williams, I don't really know much about him and since this is a favorite piece of our conductor, he's been taking moments throughout this rehearsal schedule to educate us. I am now as fascinated with this symphony as he is. Vaughan Williams was an ambulance driver during World War I and this piece was written while he was doing that job. He was inspired by the landscape he saw there and the symphony is called the "Pastoral," but it's specifically the landscape of France during the war. A requiem for the dead, if you will. The sounds and images of the symphony are mud, guns, heavy equipment, and bombs juxtaposed with rolling hills, big fluffy clouds in the sky, and tall grass waving in the wind.

At one point the maestro actually stopped us and said, "Now remember, this is the climax of the entire piece. Musically, here is where he comes closer than anywhere else to having a breakdown about all the death and carnage he'd seen. There should be an emotional catharsis coming next, but it's not going to happen... because he's English. So instead it gets all quiet and subdued again."
Its passions run very deep below a largely dispassionate surface. It seems to grant the dead eternal rest. The 2nd movement is a trumpet solo echoing the mood of "The Last Post". In the last movement, a wordless soprano floats over and through the music and time stops. The one voice turns out to be something like the voice of the wind.

Notes on RVW's Symphonies

We've gone to the extra effort to make the soprano sound ethereal and she has to begin her solo back stage then later climb up into the rafters of the concert hall to sing her last solo at the end. I think they may even be bringing a black sheet for her to stand behind so that no one can see where the voice is coming from nor who is singing. I know this wasn't planned as a political statement when the board scheduled it more than a year ago but it seems somewhat coincidental that we're playing this the week that we've reached 4,000 American soldier deaths in Iraq.

George Butterworth was a close friend of Ralph Vaughn Williams. A couple of weeks ago, someone in the orchestra wondered aloud why there was so little repertoire from Butterworth. The maestro said, "Oh, didn't you know? Butterworth was killed in the war. He was only 24. Vaughn Williams had one of the longest creative periods in musical history. Imagine if Butterworth had survived World War I. What might he have written?"

I wonder.