The song cycle On Wenlock Edge, settings of poetry by A.E. Housman, was composed for the most part in 1909. The year before, Vaughan Williams had traveled to France to study with Maurice Ravel. Although they were only together for three months and concentrated primarily on orchestration studies, Vaughan Williams found it an immensely valuable experience. On his return to England, Vaughan Williams set to work on his String Quartet in G minor and On Wenlock Edge. The song cycle, scored for the somewhat unusual combination of voice, piano, and string quartet, was premiered on November 15, 1909, with tenor Gervase Elwes, pianist Frederick Kiddle, and the Schwiller Quartet. In the early 1920s Vaughan Williams arranged the cycle for voice and orchestra. This later version, which perhaps evokes more of the poems' atmospherics, was premiered in January 1924.
The poems are drawn from Housman's A Shropshire Lad of 1896. Housman didn't much care for musical settings of his poetry, and apparently particularly disliked On Wenlock Edge. There is some argument about how well Vaughan Williams captured the bleakness and disillusionment of Housman's poetry. As attractive as On Wenlock Edge is, Vaughan Williams' much later and more angular Housman settings of Along the Field (1927) are probably closer to what Housman would have admired.
In the first song, "On Wenlock Edge," the imagery of "the old wind in the old anger" gives Vaughan Williams the chance to engage in some tone painting. This opener's historical perspective turns in subsequent songs to more personal emotions. "From Far, From Eve and Morning" is brief and comparatively simple but beautiful; the very gradual entry of the strings in the second verse (in the original chamber setting) is particularly memorable. "Is My Team Ploughing?" is more complex and despairing; Ravel's influence on Vaughan Williams is particularly clear here, in a song that was called by one early critic "a miniature tragedy." The very short interlude "Oh, When I Was in Love with You" is followed by the most ambitious of these songs, "Bredon Hill." The instruments imitate the bells of Bredon, which sound in the summer and at other times summon the folk to church, weddings, and funerals. The very still opening almost suspends time, which is most appropriate given how past, present, and future are fused in Housman's verse. Finally, "Clun" is gentle and melancholy. It misses perhaps some of the despair of Housman's poem, but the setting of the poem's final words is quite touching, and the very spare instrumental epilogue is very effective indeed.