Melodrama, in which a speaker recites a text to musical accompaniment, enjoyed a brief vogue in the nineteenth century but was already a rarity when Ralph Vaughan Williams employed it for An Oxford Elegy, which had its premiere at a private performance at the composer's home on November 20, 1949. The first public performance was at Queen's College, Oxford, on June 19, 1952. Scored for narrator, (sometimes wordless) chorus and chamber orchestra, this unusual work sets verses from two elegiac poems by Matthew Arnold, "The Scholar Gipsy" and "Thyrsis." Vaughan Williams had long considered Arnold's "The Scholar Gipsy" particularly ripe for operatic treatment, and in 1901 had made some sketches toward such a stage work. One of the themes from these early jottings was actually employed in this late work, but An Oxford Elegy is unmistakably the product of the composer's most mature musical thought, standing with the Partita for Double String Orchestra and the first and third movements of the Symphony No. 8 in D Minor as an example of extreme subtlety and suppleness from a composer who was often criticized as being technically perfunctory, even clumsy.
The short instrumental introduction presents themes of melancholy and nostalgia that will be associated with images of resignation and detachment, and later fulfillment ("Here will I sit and wait,/While to my ear from uplands far away/The bleating of the folded flocks is borne"), deploying woodwinds, divided strings and keening wordless chorus to great effect. The narrator then tells the story of the Scholar Gipsy to an accompaniment of pastoral winds, tinged with piquant dissonances that underscore the curious, ghostly quality of Arnold's tale of a poor scholar who left Oxford, never to be seen again save for wraith-like appearances that continued for two centuries. Vaughan Williams sets the narrator's own sighting of the wanderer ("...once in winter, on the causeway chill") to eerie alarums from the chorus, swirling harps and strange tollings from the horns ("Turn'd once to watch...the lines of festal light in Christ Church hall").
The telescoping of the two Arnold poems makes explicit Vaughan Williams' theme of youthful ideals surviving into old age, the "spark from Heaven" sought by the Scholar Gipsy metamorphosing into "The signal-elm...bright against the west" sought by Arnold's narrator, who now wanders the hillsides outside Oxford, meditating on the untimely death of Thyrsis (Arnold's friend, the poet Arthur Hugh Clough, 1819-1861). Here, to tremolando strings and insistent wind chords, the lost friend is compared to the cuckoo that migrates before the height of the season. This leads to the "high midsummer pomps," a catalogue of summer-blooming flowers set against a pastoral march of tender tread for chorus and orchestra, climaxing in the shimmeringly scored measures that limn the depiction of "the full moon and the white evening star."
Vaughan Williams' folk-influenced melodies are given harmonically unusual settings throughout, with flatted sevenths and minor thirds imparting an almost "bluesy" feel in some sections, and subtle polytonality creating a cold, glittering atmosphere in others. The narrator's own acknowledgement of impending old age ("...round me too the night/in ever-nearing circles weaves her shade") is similarly dark and minor-keyed; until resolve in the face of mortality enters ("Despair I will not, while I yet descry/That lonely Tree against the western sky"), and Vaughan Williams gives us one of his most beautiful, benedictory tunes, to Arnold's "Why faintest thou? I wander'd till I died./Roam on! The light we sought is shining still." The work closes with a return of the opening "Here will I sit and wait theme -- mellow, autumnal, fulfilled.