Fairfield premieres Vaughan Williams’ “Score in the Drawer”

Our resident music critic, BELLA BARTOCK, enjoyed last night’s world premiere of a previously unheard work by Ralph Vaughan Williams

Ralph Vaughan Williams, photographed around the turn of the 19th century, about the time he wrote the Cambridge Mass

Croydon staged a world premiere last night, with the first public performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Cambridge Mass, at a packed Fairfield Halls.

The concert was performed by the New Queen’s Hall Orchestra and the excellent Bach Choir, all conducted by Alan Tongue, who had discovered the previously lost score in Cambridge three years ago.

The connections with RVW last night were plentiful: the composer had himself sung in the Bach Choir when a young man, and present on the night were many devoted members of the Vaughan Williams Society, which stages the annual music festival at Leith Hill, just down the road near Dorking, the composer’s home.

The piece was written in 1899, when RVW was 26 and seeking his doctorate in music at Trinity College, Cambridge.

“The completed score lay in a drawer in Cambridge for over a century until Alan Tongue realised its full potential,” Michael Kennedy, the chairman of the Vaughan Williams Trust, said.

It is one of a number of early works by the composer that only recently have come to light. “This Mass can now be seen as one of the most important of these compositions,” Kennedy said, “highly characteristic in style. It was a bright day for English music when Mr Tongue lifted the score from the drawer.”

RVW in later life, the grand old man of English music

Whether it is a “lost” work, or merely “forgotten” is a moot point. RVW, after all, lived nearly another 60 years, but never felt the urge to rush back to reclaim or rework his exam piece.

I was reminded of the Turner exhibit at the Tate in London, which comprises many sketches and abandoned, partly completed works, fascinating to art students and historians, but which the artist never intended for exhibition. It was an eery thought as we enjoyed the performance last night that what we were hearing now had never been heard by Vaughan Williams himself.

It was all performed with much gusto and panache under Tongue’s direction. The Amen chorus was particularly powerfully delivered by the double choir, and the Offertorium for orchestra alone (as demanded by RVW’s university examiners) was pleasantly pastoral, and as Michael Kennedy suggests, an indicator of some of the greater works to come.

The Cambridge Mass’s next performance will not be until October, when it will be performed in the beautiful setting of Bath Abbey.

Meanwhile, the Leith Hill Musical Festival begins on Sunday week, March 13, with the traditional performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion, a piece that Vaughan Williams conducted at the festival every year from 1905 until his death in 1958.

The Bach Choir, too, is soon to perform the St Matthew Passion, at the Royal Festival Hall on the morning of April 10, while they are to give a performance of Mozart’s Requiem at the RFH on May 10.

And to sample a little of the Cambridge Mass, view the video clip of this local BBC new report by clicking here.

About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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