Ralph Vaughan Williams

Flos Campi, suite for viola, small chorus & small orchestra

    Description by Chris Morrison

    Vaughan Williams played the viola, and frequently professed it was his favorite instrument. Along with the Suite for viola and orchestra of 1934, his most significant work for the instrument is the unusual Flos Campi (Flower of the Field), which combines the viola with a spare orchestral backing of strings, winds, tabor, and celesta, along with a mixed choir that sings wordlessly. It was first performed on October 10, 1925, in London, with violist Lionel Tertis, voices from the Royal College of Music, and the Queen's Hall Orchestra conducted by Sir Henry Wood. The reaction was mixed, and even such close friends of the composer as Gustav Holst admitted themselves puzzled by this subtle and voluptuous work.

    In a program note for a 1927 performance, Vaughan Williams admitted "The title Flos Campi was taken by some to connote an atmosphere of 'buttercups and daisies....'" This is, in fact, far from the atmosphere of this work. Each of its six movements is headed by a quotation from the Old Testament's Song of Solomon, and it is the passionate quality of that text which informs Flos Campi. The work opens with the juxtaposition of viola and oboe, both playing melodically but in different keys, creating palpable tension. This opening movement is languorous and mysterious, its associated text speaking of the sickness of love, of how it is a "lily among thorns." Nature springs to life in the second movement, with the "singing of birds" and the "voice of the turtle." But the beloved is not present, and the third movement is passionate and agitated, with the viola accompanied mostly by the women of the choir. Men "expert in war" are at Solomon's bed in the vigorous fourth-movement march, in which the violist has an opportunity for some virtuoso display. The music builds to a rather tense climax, at which point we hear the murmuring of voices, over which the viola soars longingly. The orchestra takes up this music in a more peaceful strain, and the choir sings in sweet polyphony. The opening viola-oboe duet returns, but its ambivalence is resolved as the melodic material of the fifth movement is taken up again in a quiet and magical coda.

    Parts/Movements

    1. As the lily among thorns in A minor
    2. For, lo, the winter is past in G major
    3. I sought him whom my soul loveth in B minor
    4. Behold his bed, which is Solomon's in C minor
    5. Return, return, O Shulamite! in E modal minor
    6. Set me as a seal upon thine heart in B minor

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2018 Chandos CHSA 5201
    2015 Chandos CHAN 10870X
    2012 Melba Recordings MR 301131
    2011 Hyperion CDA 67839
    2010 Hyperion 30025
    2010 EMI Classics
    2010 EMI Classics 5099962791
    2008 Hyperion 44321/4
    2008 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099920663
    2008 Naxos 8506020
    2005 EMI Music Distribution 575311
    2005 Silverline Records 284206
    2004 Vanguard Classics 1507
    2004 Naxos 8557276
    2004 Silverline Records 288239
    2003 Nimbus Records 5166
    2003 EMI Music Distribution 575760
    2002 Vanguard 505
    2001 Nimbus 5691-5
    2000 Hyperion CDA20420
    1999 Nimbus NI1754
    1999 Chandos 2409
    1999 EMI Music Distribution 567221-2
    1997 Pearl 9252
    1996 Vanguard 43
    1995 Chandos CHAN9392
    1995 EMI Music Distribution 21094
    1994 Chandos 6545
    1994 EMI Music Distribution 65458
    1992 Centaur Records 2094
    1990 Hyperion CDA66420
    1987 EMI Music Distribution CD-EMX9512
    Vanguard Classics 4053
    Panton Records 1306
    EMI Music Distribution 1