Ralph Vaughan Williams

On Wenlock Edge, song cycle for tenor, piano & string quartet (or tenor & orchestra)

    Description by Chris Morrison

    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.

    Parts/Movements

    1. On Wenlock Edge the wood's in trouble
    2. From far, from eve and morning
    3. Is my team ploughing?
    4. Oh, when I was in love with you
    5. Bredon Hill
    6. Clun

    Appears On

    Year Title / Performer Label / Catalog # AllMusic Rating
    2019
    Linn / Linn Records
    CKR 296
    2015
    Warner Classics
    552758
    2013
    Harmonia Mundi
    807566
    2012
    Albion
    ALBCD 014
    2012
    Melba Recordings
    MR 301131
    2012
    Linn Records
    CKD 431
    2010
    Regis Records
    1316
    2010
    Decca
    4782345
    2010
    Decca
    2010
    EMI Classics
    2009
    EMI Classics / Warner Classics
    5099969758
    2009
    EMI Classics / Warner Classics
    5099996893
    2009
    EMI Classics
    2008
    Chandos
    10465
    2008
    EMI Classics / Warner Classics
    5099920663
    2007
    Signum UK
    112
    2007
    Linn Records
    296
    2004
    EMI Music Distribution
    585151
    2004
    Hyperion
    55187
    2004
    EMI Music Distribution / Warner Classics
    7243586026
    2003
    Albany Music Distribution
    603
    2003
    Naxos
    8557114
    2003
    EMI Classics
    2001
    EMI Music Distribution
    65589
    2000
    SOMM
    222
    2000
    Hyperion
    67168
    1999
    Opal
    9844
    1999
    Pearl
    GEMMCD 0062
    1999
    EMI Music Distribution
    56762
    1996
    Collins Records
    14882
    1996
    Hyperion
    66385
    1993
    Unicorn-Kanchana
    2062
    1993
    EMI Classics / EMI Music Distribution
    64731
    EMI Music Distribution
    54346
    Intaglio
    741
    Algo
    ALC1025
    EMI Music Distribution
    69170