the year of living dangerously

Of course Ralph Vaughan Williams was well aware of this paradoxal character of his composition, explaining why it was not published untill three years after the king’s sudden death in 1910. An interval that allows all necessary time for a highly important look into the overall design of the music. As to be expected from music on a text which unity goes under maximum cover; at first glance there is none:

Sweet Day                     50 bars

The Willow Song         33 bars

O Mistress Mine          29 bars

Even the copyrights differ per song, but the opening pair has in E-minor a common key, leaving the third one (E flat-major) on itself. And because all this article’s links between songs are nothing but shortcuts to information initially extracted from Mistress, I consider her a key on her own:

Sweet Day                     E-minor
The Willow Song          E-minor

O Mistress Mine     E flat-major       

This choise of keys is a well considered one: E-minor is, according to the composer Johann Mattheson (1681 – 1764), best suited to express sadness & sorrow (as in TWS), and reflectiveness (as in SD). Unfortunately I do not know what he makes of airily OMM’s key,  but it evidently creates a contrast. And both keys happen to refer to a certain initial.

Meanwhile we now see a repetition of moves from Part I. Therefore we can be pretty certain the music must be able to place the Herbert song opposite a Shakespearean couple, before uniting the cycle by the common beat. And of course Sweet Day is from a more recent date than the others.

Sweet Day                     1896

The Willow Song            1891
O Mistress Mine             1891

And to complete the procedure:

Sweet Day                  3/4 beat
The Willow Song       3/4 beat
O Mistress Mine        3/4 beat

The musical composition follows the regrouping from three stand alone songtexts to an unity (see Part One) at pitch. Making it impossible for the cycle not to be designed as such in advance. Information that sheds new light on following words from the booklet accompanying the Hyperion cd-recording of these songs:

Scored for mixed voices, these partsongs show charm, but little sophistication in the choral writing. Nevertheless their simple, diatonic harmony is far removed from the rich chromaticism of the day and points to the mature composer.

(Andrew Burn ©1995) 

It is very well within any composer’s range, to write less sophisticated than his skills allow, but the nineteen year old pupil of Hubert Parry to abandon in his Shakespeare settings the prevailing fashion is something remarkable. Even more so, because he preludes on developments taking place long after he is in five years time to compose Sweet Day in the same manner.

Dismissing the years of composition as antedatings, however, has a major drawback: the collapse of the regrouping. This regrouping’s third position is based on the dates of composition, and accepting these dates as correct is not done when constructing what is still the sole available piece of evidence for antedating. This cycle’s paradoxal character is causing enough problems already, and allowing it to develop a similar defect in its dating is the last thing we can afford. So we are in need of something better to divide Sweet Day from the united Shakespeares. The year of composition never was quite as musical a division as the other ones anyway.

Some advanced research, performed on my behalf by Marius Lindeijer (Head of the Composition Department at ARTEZ High School of Music, Zwolle, Netherlands) has brought no other musical connections between songs to light. Leaving only one option open to deal with the problem, even when in terms of musicology it seems to be an absurd one: the recount of 112 bars of music.

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