Musical Thoughts – Ralph Vaughan Williams: Flos Campi

When I wrote some brief thoughts on Finlandia around a month ago, I didn’t think it would be that long before I next wrote. Anyway, here we are. Ralph Vaughan Williams is one of the most well-known English composers, renowned for lyrical melodies and wonderful harmonies that evoke a typically English pastoral scene. The most famous of his works is undoubtedly The Lark Ascending, which regularly appears close to the top of each year’s Classic FM favourites. There is, however, another side to Vaughan Williams’ writing that cannot be ignored, and I feel that Flos Campi is a piece that perfectly exemplifies both sides of his craft.

Literally meaning ‘the flower of the field’, Flos Campi is scored for solo viola, small orchestra and singers, and is one of the lesser-known items of Vaughan Williams’ output. It is divided into six movements, each of which is headed by a quote in Latin from the Song of Solomon, which deals with the theme of love (it is, unfortunately, nothing to do with flowers or fields). The opening is very unlike what we might find in the ‘typical Vaughan Williams’ works, and is frequently cited as an example of bitonality (two separate tonalities co-existing at the same point in a piece of music). This is really what I was referring to above when I said that there is another side to Vaughan Williams: an altogether more disturbing side, which crops up in other works, including his Fourth Symphony and arguably at the start of his Sea Symphony.

Flos Campi at times feels like a balance between these two seemingly conflicting musical approaches: movement I is clearly part of the ‘disturbing’ side, movement II the typical side, with reminders of works such as The Lark Ascending and his folk-song arrangements. Movement III is more of a mixed bag, with some graceful solo viola passages in the middle, but these soon give way to a more uneasy feel. Movement IV shows another slightly different characteristic of Vaughan Williams, with a mostly punchy feel which is created by the nature of the subject matter, despite the apparent similarities to sections of The English Folk Song Suite. Movement V again has some uneasy moments, with some typically expressive melodies towards the end. The final movement, which I am lucky to have been part of a performance of (for Flos Campi is rarely performed), is far more graceful and calm than any other in the piece. It is important to note, however, that the seemingly more typical passages in this piece of music are far more lushly orchestrated in accordance with the general theme of love than most passages in Vaughan Williams’ more well-known works.

Generally speaking, Flos Campi is more the exception than the rule when it comes to Vaughan Williams due to the uniqueness of the subject matter, although I do feel that it shows the contrast between his more disturbing side and the more expressively melodic side that we are more familiar with to a greater extent than any other piece of Vaughan Williams that I have heard in full. The composer whom we tend to automatically associate solely with pastoral scenes of the English countryside has more strings to his bow.

As for recommendations, Vaughan Williams’ contemporaries Gustav Holst and Frederick Delius are well-known. Delius’ Brigg Fair and Holst’s Suite in Eb for Military Band and Somerset Rhapsody (one of his lesser known works) are all worth listening to, in addition to the more obvious.items. I couldn’t possibly finish this post without making some mention of George Butterworth, another contemporary of Vaughan Williams who sadly passed away in the First World War. A friend of mine introduced me to Banks of Green Willow, which is a beautiful representation of the English countryside, and this has led me to discover more of his works, including the emotional A Shropshire Lad. It is a shame that he seems to pass under the radar to the extent that he does.

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